It's her team and her time. If the 2011-2012 Connecticut Huskies are going to cut down any nets, it is Hayes who has to emerge as a consistent player and leader.
Excuse the Connecticut Huskies if the last 6 months they have been a bit dazed and confused. For the first time in any of their careers they had a summer of workouts following not getting their ultimate goal. Up until last season the oldest players on their team, senior Tiffany Hayes, redshirt juniors Caroline Doty and Heather Buck hadn’t even experienced a loss in their college career. Kelly Faris hadn’t lost a championship series since middle school.
So the pain and hurt of losing to Notre Dame, a team that they had previously beaten 3 times last season, in the Final Four was abundant. Pain that the UConn Women turned into sweat and tears this summer hitting the court and the pavement to make sure that the feel of despair isn’t so easy to return.
Gone is Lorin Dixon and All-Everything Maya Moore. Replacing them is high school All-Everything Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, depth at the post in Kiah Stokes and a defensive stopper in Brianna Banks. So don’t weep for them because as always the UConn Huskies do not rebuild, they reload.
Picked to finish 2nd in the Big East, behind national runner-up Notre Dame, the Huskies do not have a target on their back for the first time since 2005-2006 where Rutgers University was picked to finish first. Every other season since 1992-1993, the Huskies have been the hunted.
This year, primarily because of the loss of Moore, the Huskies have their bows & arrows locked firmly on the Irish. This season, more so than in the last 5 years, the emphasis is on teamwork and not replacing individual stats and players.
Tonight the UConn Huskies take on Assumption at 7:30 PM at Gampel Pavilion to begin their preseason. After the jump a preview by class.
Brianna Banks: Perhaps the least heralded of the freshman to grace the Huskies this season. She is no sleeper. She is by far the first player down the court that will stop a player cold in her tracks. In fact, as a freshman she might even rival junior Kelly Faris as the Defensive MVP by year’s end. She is a better shooter than anyone could see coming. According to coach Geno Auriemma, he is still searching from the consistency from the 5’9" guard from Newnan, Georgia. Not to worry Husky fans, I think Geno says that about almost all of his freshman.
Kiah Stokes: Stokes will be integral part of UConn’s season if they are going to take a serious run at a title this season. The Huskies need her size and strength on the inside as they are extremely thin on post players. Like Banks, Kiah’s consistency has been question in the early pre-season. Stokes is not alone in that sentiment as fellow forwards, Michala Johnson and Heather Buck have also been questionable in that regard.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis: What hasn’t been written about Mosqueda Lewis? I must first say that is a lot of letters to write every time. During the season I must come up with a suitable nickname. Perhaps ‘Silk’ because that is what her shot is. Besides her shot she is just an average basketball player, right? Dead wrong! She is a complete player. She can defend, rebound, play on the ball or off. She has a smile that lights up a room and answers questions as articulately as if she has never been asked them before. She can put an array of points in a hurry and literally will a team to win. She might remind you of another 23. Give her 4 years to prove if she can win like one.
Michala Johnson – Let’s give credit when credit is due. It’s hard to come back from knee injury never mind 2. Basketball is a game of skill, luck and desire. Johnson in the past has only had 2 of the 3. Last season was one of frustration at times for the sophomore, as she played her first full season in over 3 years. Johnson will not be needed to put points on the board but will be required to spell fellow Super Soph Stefanie Dolson for a few minutes and provide a defensive presence.
Lauren Engeln – In a position where the Huskies have more players available then Associate Head Coach Chris Dailey has shoes, the sophomore’s playing time might be limited. During preseason she did look more relaxed and comfortable with the ball in her hands and as always is a solid shooter. Last season she struggled to remember plays at times, in her sophomore year that will not be acceptable.
Bria Hartley – Hartley will leave UConn as an All-American. That is not questioned. If that is this year, UConn is not only a contender but a favorite. Bria is a cold hearted shooter that will drop 3’s with defenders in her face. She is not afraid of the big moments or the big shots. While her on ball defense has been questioned at times it was a serious point of her off season workouts since according to her, her defense was a reason for the Final Four loss to Notre Dame. That loss she took personal and came with an attitude adjustment. That adjustment has impressed everyone from her coaches to her teammates. In fact, according to Faris, Hartley has been the most impressive player and biggest surprise in the preseason. Hartley who spent the majority time at point last season will benefit the most from Caroline Doty’s return as she can return to her most natural position.
Stefanie Dolson – Her smile and fun loving nature light up the room. Between making up songs for the media or organizing dance routines for her teammates, it’s hard to imagine the 6’5 center is still the same kid that walked onto the Storrs campus a little over a year ago. She is a beast on the court and teddy bear off the court. A lesson that it took former Player of the Year and ‘Worst Post Player in the Country’, Tina Charles 2 years to learn. The offense is geared to her this year and her soft hands and pretty passes will keep the Huskies at the top of the national landscape. Called the 2nd best post player in the country by her coach, there might be extra motivation because she wasn’t even voted best center in her conference. Her rapid improvement during the 2010-2011 season leads to astronomical expectations this season. But the sophomore has shoulders wide enough and strong enough to handle it.
Kelly Faris – The only true junior is as steady as they come. If you ask, she will deliver time and time again. You need a rebound, she will get it. You need a stop, just call a number. The non demonstrative player is exactly what you need on any winning team. Not flashy, but solid. In the early preseason Geno has said that she has been the best shooter for the Huskies. That is a scary proposition for UConn’s opponents. In the past, you might have been able to test her shooting in the beginning of the game. She was as streaky as they came. On a team with Hartley, Mosqueda- Lewis, Caroline Doty and Tiffany Hayes that is a terrifying notion for competitors. She is a natural leader that on a team with 7 freshman and sophomores will be a vital piece.
Heather Buck (Red-Shirt Junior) – Again, what hasn’t been written about the junior? The model of inconsistency, it’s not a matter of ability but mental toughness. She has said all the right things from the moment she has stepped on campus. And then she thinks about things and her world comes crashing down. She can’t dribble, can’t shoot and struggles with the fundamentals while under the bright lights. She has the physical attributes that when and if she is able to put it together that will make her a solid contributor. For a state the pulls hard for the Connecticut native, she is running out of time to put it together on the court.
Caroline Doty (Red Shirt Junior) –** Sigh** If you were ever pulling for a Connecticut player to stay together and healthy it has to be Doty. She is the Huskies emotional and vocal leader and wants nothing more than another championship. In a school that has had more significant knee injuries than just about anyone, Doty has been bit by the injury bug as much as anyone not named Shea Ralph. Doty will be the primary option at point as she has the toughness that the Huskies lacked last season. While not the athletic player that she was she will certainly make up for her lack of quickness with smarts.
Tiffany Hayes – Hayes has had a career that many dream of. She has gone undefeated 2 out of her 3 seasons in a Husky Uniform. She has had a 90 game winning streak. In 116 career games so far, she has only lost 2. And that my friends in Connecticut, is not good enough. Hayes this season will have to be mentally tougher. There is no Maya or Tina to look to. On a young team they will look to her and for the first time she has to have answers that she didn’t have last season against Stanford or Notre Dame. She legitimately took the Notre Dame loss as her own personal responsibility. That accountability should have good results for the Huskies.
Tonight against Assumption, those demons can finally be erased for the 8 returning players. Those 6 AM runs, the hours spent replaying that semi-final game, the tears that were shed in Indianapolis can finally be dried. The Mayas and Lorins set aside and the Kiahs, the Breannas and Kaleenas can start their lore.