STORRS, Conn. -- Kia Nurse knows better. Even when a postgame question from the media suggests she had an off night, she knows it's not true. Just because the Connecticut junior didn't score much or shoot well doesn't mean she had a bad game.
Nurse isn't the kind of player who's expected to drop 30 points, though she is perfectly capable (just ask DePaul, which she scorched for 33 points). She focuses more on things that don't appear on the stat sheet. She hustles on every play, and is the emotional heart of a UConn team on yet another record-breaking winning streak.
"I think in this world, people think a good game is when you score a lot of points," Nurse said. "For me, that's not where I'm really good. If I have a really good game defensively, and I have between five and seven assists, that's a really good game for me."
This season, the 6-foot guard has stepped into a prominent leadership role in the wake of Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck moving on to the WNBA. As a three-year starter, Nurse is the most seasoned veteran on this year's Huskies squad, which is 21-0 and has extended UConn's NCAA Division I record-breaking winning streak to 98 games.
"Given who's graduated, I think her role is somewhat of an elder statesman," coach Geno Auriemma said. "I think she can really help our players through some difficult times."
"She probably has the most difficult job on our team. And she's handled it beautifully."Geno Auriemma on Kia Nurse
Sophomores Katie Lou Samuelson (21.3 points per game) and Napheesa Collier (19.5 PPG) rank 1-2 in scoring for UConn, and Crystal Dangerfield is having a standout freshman season. They are talented, but young -- and not exactly battle-tested. For Collier and Samuelson, for example, their only year of experience came in an undefeated season that culminated in an unprecedented fourth consecutive championship.
"No one really knew where to go or what to do, and Kia really took on that role," Samuelson said. "She's done a really great job."
A few games into the season, Nurse sat down with Auriemma to talk about her performance to that point. The feedback? She didn't need to do everything.
Waking up as the de facto leader has been one of the most challenging things for Nurse. She's used to being the young one. She played on the fourth-grade team as a second-grader. She made it into the starting lineup at UConn as a freshman. She is the youngest member of the Canadian national team. Being the older, wiser teammate was a complete change in roles.
"I was just putting too much pressure on myself in the sense that I had to do everything all at once," said Nurse, who takes about nine shots per game but ranks third on the team with 13.3 PPG. "It was overwhelming."
The key for Nurse is to focus on being steady. She's always ready to go, so the calm notes of "The Climb" by Miley Cyrus (once her favorite pregame jam) helped curb her instinct to go too fast. She's an emotional player, but has learned that minimizing both her highs and lows is important to how she leads.
"That's something that calms down the team," Nurse said, "especially in situations where we're in a tight game."
Nurse sets the emotional pulse, whether that means diving on the floor for loose balls or locking down the best guard on the opposing team.
"Those are things that I think just take effort, but since I was young it was something my father always harped on," she said. "It's habit now."
Nurse started her basketball life on the sideline watching older sister Tamika. Well, watching might be a stretch. Nurse remembers wanting to play on the monkey bars mounted on the wall instead of paying attention to the game, but instead she was forced to sit on the bench, right on her mother's lap.
The Nurses are a well-chronicled sports family. Parents Richard and Cathy each played sports at a high level -- Richard in the CFL as a wide receiver and Cathy collegiate basketball at McMaster University in Ontario. Tamika played Division I basketball at Bowling Green and Oregon, and brother Darnell, plays in the National Hockey League for the Edmonton Oilers. Nurse's aunt, Raquel, played basketball at Syracuse, where she met (and eventually married) former NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb. Their daughter plays hockey for the University of Wisconsin.
Nurse enjoys a strong relationship with her brother and sister. "We're best friends," she said of Darnell, who is only one year older. Watching him work hard and succeed in his sport helped Nurse see what she needed to do in order to follow the same path. Tamika texts feedback during and after UConn games, asking Nurse why she made certain decisions.
"She had everything you needed to be a good basketball player," Nurse said. "She was confident in herself. My brother is the pure workhorse, and they call me the natural athlete."
Nurse works hard like her brother and has the confidence she admires in her sister. She's self-deprecating about riding the bench as a second-grader on the fourth-grade team coached by her dad. Underneath the veneer of confidence, however, lies a hint of honest humility: Nurse never expected to be at UConn.
"I wanted to go to a team that would at least get to the [NCAA] tournament," she said. "Then I started getting interest from teams who had actually won it before, and I was like, 'Are you sure about this?'"
Now, she's UConn's anchor on a team that is defying expectations. She feels the tremendous responsibility of the moment, but is more at peace with what needs to be done, something that has not gone unnoticed.
"She probably has the most difficult job on our team," Auriemma said. "And she's handled it beautifully."