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UConn WBB Weekly: How the Huskies’ past is helping them recruit the present

Many of the Huskies’ players had some connection to UConn before joining the program.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Welcome to the UConn WBB Weekly, a recap of everything that happened in the world of UConn women’s basketball over the past week.

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We’re thrilled to announce a new podcast here at The UConn Blog, Chasing Perfection, the first-ever UConn women’s basketball-specific podcast. Hosted by myself, Daniel Connolly, and Megan Gauer, we’ll discuss everything going on with Geno Auriemma and the Huskies and bring you a wide variety of guests from across the world of women’s hoops.

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Top Links

From The UConn Blog and Storrs Central:

Last Week’s Weekly:

Elsewhere

In The News

Irwin signs with agency

Kyla Irwin is making a bid to play professional basketball in Europe. The UConn graduate signed with Flash Agency, a Greece-based agency that represents numerous American players overseas.

Currently, there are seven former Huskies signed to play in Europe: Napheesa Collier (Hatay Büyükşehir Belediyespor) and Bria Hartley (Galatasaray Basketbol) in Turkey, Batouly Camara (CB Bembibre) and Katie Lou Samuelson (CB Avenida) in Spain, Megan Walker and Gabby Williams (Sopron Basket) in Hungary and Evelyn Adebayo (Phantoms Boom) in Belgium.

Gordon enters transfer portal

Lexi Gordon is on the move again after spending the last year and a half at Texas Tech. The former UConn forward entered the transfer portal after USA Today exposed a culture of “fear, anxiety and depression” under head coach Marlene Stollings, which led to her dismissal.

Gordon began her career in Storrs as part of the Huskies’ vaunted 2017 recruiting class but transferred out after the first semester of the 2018-19 season. She landed at Texas Tech, where sat for the second semester of that season as well as the first semester of the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules. Once Gordon became eligible, she averaged 13.0 points per game and shot 36.5 percent from three. She’ll have one year of eligibility remaining.


Connections abound

Anna Makurat stood at a loss for words, shock written across her face.

A few weeks earlier, UConn faced off against the US National Team which included Makurat’s favorite player, Diana Taurasi. Makurat wasn’t sure how she was going to react when she got the chance to meet Taurasi.

“She was really my idol since I can remember,” Makurat said. “I can’t play cool. I told all my teammates before the game that when I’m going to see her, I’m going to pass out.”

However, she got a lot more than a photo with her hero out of it. When Taurasi was asked about Makurat after the game, the WNBA superstar was quick to heap praise on the then-freshman.

“To see her out there, a couple times I thought it was me. We kinda look alike, huh,” Taurasi said with a smile. “Just to see her out there the last couple games, gaining some confidence, you can tell she’s a special kid because she wants to compete.”

“She’s got such a bright future,” Taurasi added. “She’s got a long way to go here and I’m excited to see how she ends up.”

When the message finally reached Makurat a couple weeks later, the freshman could barely speak.

“That was a joke? I don’t know, it’s crazy. It’s crazy,” Makurat said in disbelief. “I saw this picture I made with her and we kind of look alike from the profile. It’s so much work to do. She’s the best player in the world, it’s so much work to do.”

Makurat certainly isn’t the only person to be a big fan of Taurasi, neither is she the first player to come to UConn after growing up as a big fan of the program. But on this team in particular, there are connections up and down the roster to UConn as both a program and as a school.

It’s pretty easy to become a UConn fan if you’re a young basketball player. The Huskies are not only the most successful program of all-time, they also have one of the largest media followings and are frequently on national television. It’s easy to follow them from anywhere in the world.

Even in places like Zagreb, Croatia. As a kid, Nika Muhl devoured anything about UConn that she could get her hands on, whether it be games, video features or even Geno Auriemma’s coaching videos.

“I think I knew pretty much everything about them,” Muhl said at the Final Four in 2019.

So once the Huskies started to recruit her, Muhl didn’t take long to make the easy decision to commit.

Autumn Chassion shares Muhl’s life-long passion for the Huskies, but that connection brought her to Storrs a different way. The walk-on first remembers wanting to come to UConn after watching the 2009 national championship team led by Maya Moore and Tina Charles when she was seven.

But the watershed moment came during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons, when Chassion and her father made the journey from Lafayette, Louisiana to Storrs to watch the Huskies practice. Those trips played a critical role in gaining the coaching staff’s attention, which eventually led to a walk-on offer for Chassion.

But for other players, the UConn connection goes beyond fandom.

On the court, Saniya Chong isn’t one of the all-time program greats. However, her importance to UConn can’t be overlooked. When she committed to the Huskies, Chong opened a new pipeline from Ossining High School in New York for Auriemma and his staff.

Andra Espinoza was the second player to arrive after Chong, though she transferred before her first year was even over.

However, Aubrey Griffin followed soon after. Though she’s only played one season at UConn, Griffin has already flashed a sky-high potential and could well be on her way to All-American honors — if not more. It’s possible Griffin still comes to UConn without Chong, but the connection certainly didn’t hurt.

“Saniya opened a door for all the kids to follow behind her,” Ossining head coach Dan Ricci told The UConn Blog in 2018. “I know [Griffin] worked a couple camps with Saniya this summer and she was friends with Saniya.”

Aaliyah Edwards has a little bit of both. She’s got the fan aspect — Edwards cited “all the UConn players” as her favorite women’s basketball players — but she also played with Kia Nurse on the Canadian national team and suited up for Kia Nurse Elite on the AAU circuit.

“We played on the senior women’s national team together,” Edwards said. “We were able to communicate then and also via text. It’s great to have a former Canadian to reach out to as a mentor and as a teammate just to inspire me.”

Piath Gabriel’s recruiting process had plenty of people to talk to gain a perspective on both Division I basketball and UConn. Her brother, Wenyen, played at Kentucky while her sister, Karima, played at DePaul, Boston College and Cal State Fullerton.

Meanwhile, Gabriel’s athletic director at Bradford Christian Academy was Scott Hazelton, who played for UConn men’s basketball from 2000-03 before finishing his career at URI. When the Huskies were recruiting Gabriel, Hazelton helped Auriemma and his staff with their pitch.

“During the recruiting process, he told me I was going to love it,” Gabriel said. “After I committed, he told me I’m going to love it.”

None of these factors alone brought any of the players to UConn — most of that credit still goes to Auriemma and his staff. However, in the recruiting game, even the slightest edge can help. If a player has a connection to a school, they’ll be more likely to feel comfortable with it and want to go there.

And for a program with the history and clout of UConn, it’s easy to find a connection somewhere.


Best of social media

Geno Auriemma’s got some new gear:

Napheesa Collier created a new celebration with a 3-pointer on Saturday night:

Olivia Nelson-Ododa gave it try:

Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart are feeling like they’re at UConn again:

A mini-reunion of the greatest class in program history in the bubble:

Without question, this is the coolest Sports Illustrated cover of all-time:

Quotables

[Laughs] “I’m a big girl now so I think I’m gonna be okay.” — Anna Makurat when asked about not knowing when she’ll be able to return home to Poland again.