Proof That UConn Recruit Crystal Dangerfield Will Go The Extra Miles
For Crystal Dangerfield, it was from Russia with ... exhaustion.
Dangerfield, a 5-foot-6 point guard at Blackman (Murfreesboro, Tennessee), a UConn recruit and the No. 3 player in the espnW HoopGurlz Top 100 for the 2016 class, traveled to Chekhov, Russia, last month and helped the United States win a gold medal at the FIBA U19 World Championship.
That's when things got really difficult.
The final, a 78-70 win over Russia -- both teams entered that game with 6-0 records -- was played on July 26.
After the game, the team celebrated for about 15 minutes before taking the bus back to the hotel, a trip that took 90 minutes because of traffic issues. By the time they got to the hotel, there was only time to shower and leave for the airport at 2:30 a.m.
Operating on zero sleep, they flew from Moscow to Frankfurt, Germany, to Washington, D.C. From there, the players scattered. Dangerfield, accompanied by her parents, flew to Chicago and then to Nashville, finally arriving home on July 28 at 1:20 a.m.
"The actual playing is not tiring -- it was the traveling," said Dangerfield, a two-time Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year.
"I'm still kind of speechless that we won. It was a great experience, going out there and meeting our goal of a gold medal. I would love to do it again ... just not any time soon. I'm kind of tired."
Perhaps the most amazing part of Dangerfield's journey was what happened next.
Dangerfield, who at age 17 was one of the youngest players on the USA team, didn't get much sleep on her first night back home in Tennessee. She and her parents woke up before 5 a.m. on that Tuesday and drove to North Augusta, South Carolina, so she could play Nike Nationals with her Kentucky Premier AAU team.
She arrived at 12:30 p.m. -- 15 minutes before tipoff.
"We were all happy to have her back with the team," said Kentucky Premier teammate and Notre Dame recruit Erin Boley, a 6-2 forward from Elizabethtown [Kentucky]. "We knew she was tired. We knew she had barely slept. We were appreciative that she made the effort to be with us."
Dangerfield would have started that first game if not for an unusual and selfless request.
"As soon as she arrived, I had her shoes ready for her, and she went and changed [into her uniform]," Kentucky Premier coach David Tapley said. "She asked that I not start her because she didn't feel that would be fair to her teammates who had been there all along.
"That's the type of kid she is. But when she got in, she was the same old Crystal. She scored 14 points, which surprised me coming off a tough bunch of flights.
"But that's why she's going to UConn. They are not taking regular kids."
There actually were two incoming UConn players on the USA roster. The other was Napheesa Collier, a 6-1 wing who will be a freshman for the Huskies this fall.
Collier, who played her high school ball for Incarnate Word Academy (St. Louis), made the five-player all-tournament team in Russia after averaging 12.7 points and 9.3 rebounds in Team USA's seven games.
"It was pretty cool to have her there," Dangerfield said of Collier. "I think we were the only two [USA] players going to the same college.
"That was special, and we plan to take advantage of the chemistry we built once we are both at UConn. Napheesa will grab rebounds and defend -- she's a team player."
Dangerfield said she learned a lot from her 11 teammates, including six who played college ball last year. The team captain was 6-4 forward A'ja Wilson of South Carolina, the 2015 SEC freshman of the year.
Wilson scored 30 points in the final against Russia, earning tournament MVP honors and setting a single-game scoring record for the USA's U19 team.
"Russia gave us a run for our money -- they were the second-best team there -- but we still came out with a win," Dangerfield said.
"The teams were really physical out there, and the referees let you body up a lot more. I liked it because you can play defense harder than you can here."
Dangerfield said her team had to constantly run opponents off the 3-point line because so many teams have gifted perimeter shooters.
Off the court, Dangerfield also enjoyed the tourism aspect of her trip, visiting famed Red Square in Moscow.
"It's a really busy place," Dangerfield said. "We took a tour and learned about all the history -- it was cool to see.
"A few people spoke English but not many. They are not as quick to start talking. You definitely knew you were an outsider."
That was especially true during the final.
"The championship game was the loudest game I've ever played in," said Dangerfield, who has led Blackman to two straight state titles. "They had so many noisemakers. When we had the ball, it was noise, noise, noise." Dangerfield came off the bench to provide a team-high five assists to go with four points and three rebounds. For the tournament, she averaged 6.4 points and 2.7 assists.
Now that she is home and the AAU season is over, Dangerfield is looking forward to her final year of high school. Her Blackman team will be going for a third straight state title, but will have to overcome significant losses after last season.
Four seniors graduated and signed with college basketball programs: Meme Jackson with Tennessee, K.K. Williams (Georgia State), Angel Allen (Western Carolina) and Alex Johnson (Middle Tennessee State). In addition, coach Chad Hibdon resigned to take the head coaching job at Truett-McConnell, an NAIA college in Cleveland, Georgia.
Dangerfield and 6-3 forward Jazz Bond will be the primary senior leaders on this year's team.
It was a great experience, going out there and meeting our goal of a gold medal. I would love to do it again ... just not any time soon. I'm kind of tired.Crystal Dangerfield
"We lost some great girls who we will miss," said Bond, who has committed to South Florida. "But we're going to do things the same way -- compete in the weight room and on the court. We're going to work hard every day so we can succeed."
The new coach is Jessica Jackson, and it helps she has familiarity with the Blackman program. She was an assistant for seven years under Hibdon before becoming the head coach for two years at a neighboring school, Stewarts Creek.
She doesn't regret leaving Blackman -- she may never have gotten the head-coaching job had she not acquired experience at Stewarts Creek -- but she also realizes she missed out on some amazing success with Dangerfield and Co.
"What Chad did the past two years was probably once in a lifetime because they went 66-3, won two state titles and were ranked No. 1 in the nation for a while," Jackson said. "Even though I was gone, I still felt attached to them. I wanted them to win every game except the two we played them each year."
After her first season at Stewarts Creek, Hibdon invited her to the Blackman ring ceremony dinner. Jackson was given a state championship ring, which she said "meant a lot."
Now she will try to win one as the head coach, and Blackman is off to a great start, going 24-1 in the summer with a core group of six seniors, including five who have been there since their freshman years.
Leading the way, of course, will be Dangerfield, who has a 3.81 GPA and has started all 98 games in her high school career.
"Even when she was in the fourth grade, she was dominant," Jackson said of Dangerfield, who also won a gold medal with the USA U16 team in 2013. "When she got to Blackman Middle School, we were just counting down the years until she would come to us."
Jackson said Dangerfield's leadership skills and knowledge of the game have continued to improve since she last coached her as a freshman.
"I listen to her," Jackson said. "If there is an adjustment she thinks might help, we as coaches will listen. And her first step might be the quickest in the country."
Tapley, her AAU coach, agreed.
"She has a killer crossover," he said. "She's impossible to stop with the ball in her hands."