Can Irish keep up with Jefferson?
Speedy sophomore's breakout season helps pave way for UConn's 39-0 run
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- There isn't a player in women's college basketball who gets from here to there quite like Connecticut's Moriah Jefferson.
She's the fastest when she hits maximum velocity on an end-to-end breakaway. She's the fastest when her first step carries her past a flat-footed defender. She's the fastest sliding sideways to place herself directly in an opponent's passing lane. And she's the fastest when she reaches in and flicks away the ball like Las Vegas sensation Apollo Robbins swiping a watch.
She is, in a word, fast.
As Connecticut and Notre Dame put perfect seasons on the line Tuesday night (ESPN/WatchESPN, 8:30 ET) in Nashville, what the diminutive guard did with that speed in a breakthrough sophomore season remains one of the biggest reasons the Huskies are in this position. Sure, they are better than they were in winning a championship a season ago because Breanna Stewart continued to emerge as a star, Bria Hartley got healthy and returned to All-American form and half a dozen other reasons. Perfection has many parents.
But in a season in which its freshman class hasn't been a factor, Connecticut essentially added an All-American point guard in Jefferson.
So it's more than a bit of a surprise that she had such a difficult time keeping up in her first season.
And we're not even talking about playing basketball for Geno Auriemma.
For a Texan, transitioning to the pace of life in the Northeast stopped her in her tracks.
"Just walking around on campus and how fast everybody was walking," Jefferson said of what struck her most about her new surroundings a year ago. "Seriously, I'm not even playing. When I was in Texas, I walk, I take my time and just kind of go where I'm going. When I'm walking like that [on campus], everybody is on my back like, 'Move.' ...
"So now I think I've picked it up a little bit. I walk a little bit faster."
The rest of the basketball world now finds itself trying to catch up. In a rivalry between two teams in which everything is so familiar, right down to the friction between the coaches, a game with Jefferson cast in a leading role opposite Notre Dame's All-American backcourt is a new twist.
Jefferson arrived in Connecticut with a familiar résumé. She was a high school All-American, a contender for or member of various U.S. youth national teams and a prolific prep scorer who won a lot -- more than 160 games in competition as a homeschooled athlete. Hoopgurlz ranked her as the No. 2 prospect in the nation as a senior, right behind Stewart and two places ahead of Notre Dame's Jewell Loyd.
By most accounts, that was the player who arrived on campus the summer before her freshman year.
There's a lot of great guards out there, and certainly we played against all of them, but right now, I'd take Moriah Jefferson as a sophomore for the next couple of years over anybody.” -- UConn coach Geno Auriemma
"Me and Moriah were going at it. She would hit a 3, I would hit a 3, just going back and forth," Hartley said of pickup games before the start of classes and official practices. "I'm like, 'Man, this kid is good; she's really going to be something special.' And then when we got into practice, you didn't really see that, just that competitive edge.
"I think she just kind of sat there and was like, 'Oh, they don't necessarily need me right now.'"
Connecticut already had a backcourt that included not just Hartley but seniors Kelly Faris and Caroline Doty. So while Stewart started and scored 21 points in her first college game, Jefferson came off the bench, committed a turnover eight seconds after checking in and finished with a mixed bag -- five assists but also five turnovers against Charleston. By the time the Huskies opened Big East play against Notre Dame, she played just seven minutes. It was 13 quiet minutes in a loss against Baylor, four minutes in a triple-overtime thriller against the Fighting Irish in South Bend and five minutes in a loss against the same team in Hartford in the Big East championship game.
This year's lone freshman, Saniya Chong, played just three minutes in the past three rounds. She is still averaging more minutes per game this season than Jefferson did a season ago.
"Moriah's biggest problem was she didn't really believe that she could do all the things that I thought she could do," Auriemma said. "So I just kept looking at her incredulously, going, 'Where's the kid I recruited out of high school that was so confident, so cocky, thought she could do anything, anytime, anywhere with the basketball, offensively, defensively?' And now there's this kid that keeps looking over to the bench to see if everything is OK."
Only in last season's NCAA tournament did the pendulum start to swing. It wasn't so much the numbers she put up -- the best were probably 10 points and four steals against Kentucky in the Sweet 16 -- but, especially in her defense, a spark of confidence appeared again. That led her into the summer and an opportunity to play alongside teammates Stewart and Morgan Tuck with the U.S. under-19 national team that went unbeaten in the world championship. Jefferson didn't shoot well in the event, but she had 31 assists and just nine turnovers.
Most of all, she enjoyed it, which made the hours in the gym she put in the rest of the summer more bearable.
"I kind of got the fun back playing USA Basketball, and that carried over to this season," Jefferson said. "I just had a newfound confidence after the season, winning a national championship and stuff like that. I think that carried over to USA Basketball, and then USA Basketball carried over to the season."
This season, Jefferson led the team in scoring in its first game and finished with five assists, three steals and zero turnovers. More minutes meant more misery for opposing guards as she became one of the country's best defensive stoppers. Someone who by her own admission struggled to adjust from scorer to facilitator is chasing Renee Montgomery for the most single-season assists in the past decade.
"She came in in September, and the very first day that we got together to practice, you could tell she was a different person," Auriemma said. "That's the player we recruited. That's the Moriah Jefferson that we recruited. There's a lot of great guards out there, and certainly we played against all of them, but right now, I'd take Moriah Jefferson as a sophomore for the next couple of years over anybody."
She remains a work in progress. She was selective and extremely efficient from the 3-point line this season, but when Stanford all but dared her to take those shots Sunday, she hesitated. But the only question at this point is how high she will climb.
"She's coming out of her shell," Connecticut associate head coach Chris Dailey said. "I liked it better when she didn't speak."
Auriemma isn't the only one who is quick with a quip in the Connecticut locker room.
"Now we're getting to see more of her personality," Dailey said. "I think that helps. And I think she feels more connected to Geno -- there needs to be a direct line. She has to think like he thinks. I think she's understanding that more. She's putting more pressure on herself to get things right."
Amid the attraction of Tuesday's game between unbeaten former conference rivals is an undercurrent of what their dominance says about the state of women's basketball. Leading up to the game, a lot of people will expend a lot of air talking about how the landscape is skewed because of the depth of talent Connecticut attracts.
There might be truth to the old trope, but there aren't a lot of supposedly good players who go to Connecticut and fall short of expectations. It isn't just the talent you get. It's what you do with the talent.
"That's why he's so good is he knows how to coach individual players and he knows how to get the best out of them that he can," Stefanie Dolson said of Auriemma. "With Moriah, he just challenged her and said how much he needed her this coming year. I think she took that challenge and has proved to him what a great player that she can be."
He challenged her to get up to speed.
Jefferson hasn't been home much recently. Flight issues over Christmas forced her to spend the holiday with Hartley and her family, and USA Basketball ate up a chunk of time in the summer. But when she does get home for a few quick moments, as she did when the team played at Baylor this season, her mom will chide her for walking too fast.
"I tell her it's just a habit," Jefferson said.
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
UConn beat Notre Dame 79-58 to cap a 40-0 season to win it second consecutive NCAA title and record ninth championship overall.