As the UConn women’s basketball team prepares for a tough road matchup against defending national champion South Carolina, the Huskies are as dominant as ever, beating opponents by more than 36 points per game.
Of course, this consistent excellence is commonplace for UConn, but even with the same core group of players, the Huskies are producing their usual results a little differently than last year, largely thanks to the play of senior guard Kia Nurse.
While Nurse was named the preseason American Athletic Conference player of the year prior to last season, she was overshadowed by the tremendous play of Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams, who helped UConn lead the country with 123 points per 100 possessions and an offensive rating of 133.8. Nurse would finish her junior year on the AAC second team after averaging 12.7 points and shooting 48 percent from the floor and 46 percent from the 3-point line.
Although Samuelson was a lights-out shooter and Williams was an excellent facilitator, Collier was the key cog in the Huskies’ dynamic offense last season due to her incredible efficiency. Collier averaged 20.4 points per game on 67.8 percent shooting from the field, 43 percent shooting from the 3-point line and shot 81.8 percent from the free throw line. Her true shooting percentage - an adjusted shooting percentage statistic that factors in 3-pointer and free throws - was the best in the country at 72.2 percent.
However, Collier, Samuelson and Williams have all played a little bit differently than last year. Collier has been less efficient and Samuelson has been plagued by numerous injuries. Williams is tasked with a bit less due to Crystal Dangerfield’s emergence as a prolific passer.
While this trio is still among the best in the country, and regression is not a disappointment after those stellar season, Kia Nurse’s breakout year has made these changes almost unnoticeable from a team perspective. That’s all Geno Auriemma cares about anyway.
With the offense running through Dangerfield, Nurse is free to play off the ball, where she is a deadly spot-up shooter on the wing and is free to run out to start the fast break off defensive turnovers.
“That’s been big for me too. For me to be on the wing and get out in transition, those are the strengths of my game,” Nurse said. “Why not have someone else help me get into that situation?”
This ability to play off the ball more has led to Nurse basically becoming more of what Collier was last season.
This year, Nurse is averaging 15.1 points on 57 percent shooting from the field and 50.5 percent from the 3-point line, leading the team in both 3-point percentage and attempts. Her true shooting percentage of 72.9 is a smidge better than Collier’s was last season, largely due to Nurse’s ability to knock down 3-pointers at such a high rate.
After shooting around 40 percent from deep her first two seasons in Storrs, Nurse has become a knockdown shooter as an upperclassman, shooting 46.2 percent last season and nearly 48 percent from deep since the start of her junior year.
“Getting into the gym and seeing the ball go into the net a couple times [has helped]., Nurse said about improving her 3-point shot. “Coach Auriemma and Coach Ralph especially have taken the time to be in here with me and work on the mechanics.”
Nurse’s overall efficiency has helped what was a great offense last year become even better. According to Her Hoop Stats, the Huskies lead the country once again with an offensive rating of 138.1 and 121.7 points per 100 possessions.
“I’m not going to complain about it, so far it’s gone a lot better than expected and I’m okay with that,” Nurse said. “When the years go by, it’s more about seeing yourself improve every year and seeing that the work, effort and things coaches are telling you are starting to translate. That’s the most exciting part for me.”
But as gaudy as Nurse’s numbers may be, they aren’t necessarily surprising.
Nurse has shown the ability to put up big numbers in the past, like her 33-point outburst against DePaul and her 29-point game against Syracuse in round two of the NCAA tournament, where she made nine 3-pointers. This season she’s doing it a little more consistently.
With Collier, Samuelson and Williams playing as well as they did last season, Nurse didn’t necessarily need to try to score and passed up shots for easy looks for her teammates while she ran the point. Now, with open looks in the flow of the offense, Nurse can let loose, and the results speak for themselves.
Ian Bethune contributed to the reporting for this article.