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Friday, December 7, 2012
Bright lights bring highlights from Saniya Chong

By Jake Thomases

Taking jumpers in her warm-up pants, Saniya Chong was tense. She didn't want to let anybody down by performing badly in the game to come. Her Ossining (N.Y.) High School team would go on to win by 53. It was the same a couple weeks later when, during pregame stretching, she again had a case of the nerves. Ossining squeaked that one out by a mere 50.

Chong's junior season would see many similar laughers, including a 40-point destruction of Ossining's sectional semifinal opponent. Before each and every one of those contests, against state powerhouses and lightweights alike, the U-18 national team invitee had a lump in her throat.

She's afraid of messing up. She's afraid of looking bad. She's afraid of disappointing her teammates, her fans. She could get a triple-double against some of these teams with a peg leg and an eye patch. Doesn't matter. So much is expected of this human box score that, in those solitary moments before tipoff, she shivers at the thought.

Pressure is the enemy of many an athlete. Somehow, it is not an enemy of Chong's. Pressure has turned the high school senior into a national superstar. Pressure got her a full ride to the most prestigious college basketball program in the country. At the biggest moment, in front of the most eyes, the quiet girl is simply better.

Geno Auriemma didn't recruit the 5-foot-9 guard to UConn because of this quality. He recruited her because she handles the ball and hits 3s and flies up the court like she's trying to catch the last bus. But when UConn finds itself in a tight NCAA tournament game with four minutes left and the ball in her hands, he'll be happy her brain works the way it does.

The day of the biggest game of Chong's 2011-12 season, a sectional championship played in front of cheering classmates and jeering foes, Ossining coach Dan Ricci told her she was 31 points away from 2,000 for her varsity career. Oh, and there would probably be a handful of Division I scouts in the stands. She scored 18 over the first 16 minutes, staking Ossining to a 26-point lead. At halftime Ricci reminded her, hey, you're 13 points away. You're six points away, he shouted when she got within six. You're four points away, he shouted when she got within four.

"I've had eight or nine 1,000-point scorers and every one of them froze up the last 15 or 20 points," the coach said. "She scored her 2,000th point on a four-point play. She never shied away from any of that stuff."

Four points from 2,000, Chong sprung one of her 3-pointers that remind you of a fish spitting at a bug to knock it off a leaf. She was fouled, rattled in the free throw and reached a milestone that a rare few have reached in four or five varsity seasons. She did it in less than three.

It's clear she did not embrace the moment. Her shoulders were tense before the free throw; her breaths were deep. She is a great player made greater by the expectations, but not in love with them.

"For us that bodes well, because we're in a pressure cooker every night," said Shea Ralph, the UConn assistant who originally scouted her.

A Bronx-born child of a Chinese father and African-American mother, Chong moved to Ossining, a town 45 minutes north of New York City that is the home of Sing Sing prison, the summer before ninth grade. She joined a team that had gone 17-7 the previous year and immediately led them in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocks and indignant exclamations that the freshman was shooting too much.

The next year she upped her scoring average to 33.8 while continuing to lead the team in all five major categories. She was a gifted passer, but her young teammates were raw and cost her several assists a game, while allowing defenses to double and triple her constantly. Still, the region's undisputed best player carried them to a sectional championship, averaging 42 points in six sectional and state playoff games.

As a junior she nearly averaged a double-double, posting 9.7 assists to go with 33.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.0 steals. She sank 100 3-pointers, mostly out of half-court sets, while blowing past girls on the break with a deadly crossover and an ability to finish with either hand. Twice she scored 55, against New York City powerhouse Archbishop Molloy and eventual Class B state champion Irvington. Ossining won its first 23, none by fewer than 14 points.

Despite losing its second best player to transfer, the 2012-13 squad is among the favorites for a state title. Ossining will play a national schedule, including three games at the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix later this month.

"She's so versatile and with a high basketball IQ, that at the next level, with All-Americans running the lane with her, she'll be able to kick ahead or hit a trailer or take it herself," said Horace Greeley (Chappaqua, N.Y.) coach John Alkalay, whose team faced Chong twice last season.

The only thing Chong didn't do was garner national exposure. She played on a local AAU team with her high school teammates, for her high school coach, choosing not to attend the kind of national showcases college scouts frequent. UConn might never have ever seen her play if not for a tape Ricci sent in. The coaches saw enough to send Ralph to a late-season high school game, followed by Auriemma attending the state quarterfinal.

It's not going to be handed to me. I have to go in there and work so hard, being on a team with All-Americans.

-- Saniya Chong

Imagine, after a slow start to the recruiting process, having a seven-time national championship coach pop in for the biggest game of your life. Ricci has been around long enough to know athletes get petrified in that situation. Naturally, he told Chong about Auriemma as soon as he could.

"I'd rather be told because it boosts my whole perspective on the game," Chong said. "Knowing there's a coach there makes me work 10 times harder, makes me run faster, makes me shoot better. It changes my whole game."

By that time, a number of schools were courting her, including Ohio State, Louisville, Rutgers, Maryland and North Carolina. During an official visit to Storrs, she was impressed by the Huskies' professionalism and personability. Among those who welcomed her was Breanna Stewart, an incoming freshman whose Cicero-North Syracuse team had just handed Ossining its only defeat, in the Class AA state semifinal.

Chong made her decision in October and signed her letter of intent Nov. 14. She will be UConn's only scholarship addition for the 2013-14 season. UConn will carry only nine scholarship players, meaning she could get playing time right away. But Auriemma has shown he will only play those who earn his trust in practice, even if that means shortening his rotation.

The Huskies, who've made five consecutive Final Fours, will have two guards -- Bria Hartley and Moriah Jefferson -- in line ahead of Chong for ballhandling duties.

"It's just going to make me better, knowing it's not going to be easy," she said. "It's not going to be handed to me. I have to go in there and work so hard, being on a team with All-Americans."

If Auriemma is smart, he'll tell her before each game that unless she plays great, she's never getting off the bench again, or getting any ice cream. She'll wince, she'll clench and then she'll light it up.