NCAA
Graham Hays, espnW.com 15d

Is Azurá Stevens the best Husky of them all?

Women's College Basketball, Connecticut Huskies

The bubble is a familiar concept in college sports, that anxious limbo as a team waits to find out whether it made the NCAA tournament. Azurá Stevens lived it when her Duke team missed the postseason in 2016.

But she also endured an anxiety peculiar to women's basketball a season earlier, one that affects even teams whose postseason places are assured.

"It didn't matter who else we were playing against, we just didn't want to be in UConn's bracket until the championship," Stevens recalled. "It was like if you got in their bracket, your shoulders just slumped because eventually you had to play them, and probably you're going to lose."

It's why the rest of women's college basketball rejoiced when Mississippi State ended UConn's 111-game winning streak in the Final Four. Morgan William's shot at the buzzer in Dallas stopped the inevitable. Hope need not be abandoned.

Yet the recent end of a different streak that stretched into the hundreds should cause those same challengers to temper their optimism.

UConn's exhibition win against Division II Fort Hays State on Nov. 1 did not officially mark the start of a new winning streak for the sport's Goliath. But it ended a stretch of more than 600 days since Stevens last took the court for a college game, the former All-ACC selection newly eligible after sitting out a season as a transfer.

Now a roster that features three returning All-Americans (Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson Gabby Williams) and a Canadian Olympian (Kia Nurse) includes a 6-foot-6 player with a soft touch and the potential to be the best of them all. The best in Storrs, Connecticut. The best in America. As if there is a difference. And that's why she came. Not because wins would be easier but because there is one thing more difficult than beating UConn on any given day.

That is being UConn every single day.

So here is Stevens. So much for everyone else's hope.

It's as if the Golden State Warriors slipped in the NBA Finals after a record-setting regular season and then added the closest thing to a unique talent in the game.

"She's like Kevin Durant," said South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, who worked with Stevens in her other role coaching USA Basketball. "You can play her a lot of different places. I don't know where Geno [Auriemma] is going to play her, but she's certainly the stretch-4 prototype. She can shoot it, she can put it on the floor, she's long on the block. She makes you forget about her because she hangs out on the 3-point line, and all the post players go back and wait for her in the paint."

Like her NBA counterpart, and Candace Parker, Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart before her in the women's game, Stevens is versatile in ways still rarely seen among the tallest players on the court. And also like Durant, she opted to join what was already the most dominant outfit in her sport.

But look at the world from her perspective. If there is near universal agreement that UConn continues to set the standard in women's college basketball, then which is the greater challenge? Measuring herself against that standard for one game in a season? Or measuring herself against it every day in practice?

"The pace and the way we're playing -- she's going to have to do a lot more than she was accustomed to doing before," Auriemma said recently of Stevens returning after a year without games. "But I have no doubt that she can do that."

Forget the pace of play. The pace of practice caught Stevens like that first blast of cold air on a winter morning in Storrs. She was mostly spared Auriemma's choicest barbs a season ago, her time spent with the scout team or reserves, but there was no escaping the intensity and precision required daily. From the smallest details, like shooting drills when players are at their most fatigued to mimic game conditions, everything has a purpose and a pace. That the same drills are run all year, that they might be the same drills Sue Bird or Nykesha Sales did, is as much about focus and attention to detail as the particular skill being put to use.

That weary look opponents wear by the fourth quarter of games against UConn? That's what the Huskies deal with every other day, forced to reexamine their opinion of their own ability.

Stevens keeps a basketball journal. Some entries are longer or more detailed than others, but she tries to always come up with at least a list of things she did well that day in practice. The objective, as she learned, was to come up with 10 things. She can't recall reaching double digits yet, but she'll come up with as many as five sometimes. It's a start.

"I think coming here, I've definitely set the bar higher for myself, which is good, but also I have to sometimes not just think everything I do is wrong," Stevens said. "I've gotten harder on myself since I've been here, which is a good thing. But I think just trying to find that balance of having self-confidence but also honestly assessing how I've been playing."

She almost committed without so much as a visit when UConn expressed interest upon her departure from Duke. Her parents eventually talked her into at least going on the trip, all the more considering she spent her first two years of college mere miles from her hometown and her family in North Carolina, but she made up her mind before the visit wrapped up.

"I think I was just looking for a place that would help me to grow and push me to further limits," Stevens said. "Just an environment that was not as negative. I don't want to say toxic, but my sophomore year was really, really hard. Basketball has always been something in my life that I love, that has brought me joy. It hasn't always been great, there are some days where I don't like it. But it was just really hard sophomore year, playing in environment where I felt like a lot of people just didn't want to be there and weren't really into it. ... It kind of wore me down."

There are very few things Stevens can't do on a basketball court. Staley described putting her at the top of a press and watching international opponents fall apart against that reach and agility. Collier noted the security of back-side help that Stevens brings, while Nurse talked about the ability to alter shots close to the basket, a tool the Huskies lost without Stewart or Kiah Stokes. On the offensive end, Stevens can shoot the 3-pointer, run the floor or set up in a back-to-the-basket role.

Indeed, how Auriemma deploys her, Staley suggested, will be one of the season's most intriguing stories.

Likely more intriguing than the outcome of many of UConn's games. But that isn't her fault.

Choosing UConn wasn't about seeking the easiest path here and now. It was, to her, choosing the clearest path to where she wants to go with all of those skills. Maybe the only path.

"The best type of player I can be," Stevens said of Auriemma's vision for her when the two spoke on the phone about transferring.

She paused and seemed to search for how to say what she meant without it sounding wrong.

"I mean, the best player in the country -- that I can be that if I put in the time and the work."

She'll have some competition now that she is back on that court. But never more than every day in practice.

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