DALLAS - There is no one left playing in the NCAA Tournament that is shooting the ball better than Kia Nurse.
The UConn women’s basketball team’s junior guard shot 75.8 percent from the floor and 76.9 percent from 3-point land while averaging 18.3 points during the Huskies’ successful four-game run through the Bridgeport Regional.
But when it was time to lift UConn into the Final Four for the 10th consecutive season, Nurse did what she does best - play stifling defense - to get the job done. Nurse kept Oregon freshman guard Sabrina Ionescu under wraps while the game was being decided and the top-seeded Huskies built an insurmountable lead as they coasted to a 90-52 win over the No. 10 Ducks at Webster Bank Arena.
“We did a good job of understanding that when you’re one pass away, get into the passing lane,” Nurse said. “We wanted to disrupt their offense and that was one of the things we focused on. They get open shots out of their offense. So when we got into passing lanes we made some steals and turned them into points.”
The task doesn’t get easier for UConn (36-0 and winner of 111 straight). The Huskies face Oklahoma City Regional representative Mississippi State and All-American Victoria Vivians Friday night in a national semifinal at American Airlines Center.
Vivians had 24 points, six rebounds, and six assists as the Bulldogs (33-4) advanced to their first Final Four with an overtime upset of Baylor in the regional final, though the junior wing’s effort was overshadowed by the stirring 41-point performance by point guard Morgan William.
UConn defeated Mississippi State in the 2016 Sweet 16 in Bridgeport 98-38.
“The guys that beat them by 60 aren’t really playing in this game,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “Mississippi State has almost their entire team back and they’re better. We haven’t gotten to where we are by pretending that anybody is not as good, or is not good enough to beat us.”
Nurse, though, is one of the players that is back and she is enjoying her best stretch of the season at both ends of the court.
The Hamilton, Ontario, native is averaging 12.9 points on 48.7 percent shooting from the floor. She leads the American Athletic Conference in 3-point percentage (46.7) and free-throw percentage (85.5).
In NCAA Tournament play, she is 25-for-33 from the floor overall and 20-for-26 from behind the arc. Her second trey against the Ducks tied her with former UConn standouts Diana Taurasi (2003) and Maya Moore (2010) and also Alabama’s Betsy Harris (1994) in 3-pointers made in one tourney. Taurasi and Moore played in six games while Harris played in five.
“I had that one game with a lot of them,” Nurse said with a smile of her nine treys against Syracuse on March 20. “At this time of the year you have to be in a good place. You have to go in physically ready and mentally ready. The confidence I have in my own shot and the confidence my teammates have in me is great.”
But Nurse has had her struggles.
She had a tough November and it led to a heart-to-heart talk with Auriemma.
“I understood what my role was after that meeting, understanding I just had to be that steady guy and maintain the offense and be a defensive stopper every single game,” Nurse said. “That has just become a habit now, that leadership role and understanding kind of how to control the tempo.”
A stress reaction in her right ankle cost her the final four games of the regular season. While she returned in time for UConn’s run to the AAC Tournament title, her game was still a work progress.
But a 12-day break between the AAC final and the start of NCAA play allowed her to do the work she needed in the gym and the rest is, well, history.
While the Big Three of UConn’s Class of 2016 did much of the heavy lifting during their numerous streaks, a fifth consecutive national championship and seventh perfect season would belong solely to this current group of Huskies.
“W we have an opportunity to do it right now,” Nurse said. “The winning streak, we’re a part of it. We didn’t do it all on our own. There was a lot of people who came before us to start the streak and we are kind of carrying on that legacy that they left. That’s something we focus on every day.
“We’re focused on the fact that UConn is built into what UConn is today because of everybody who came before and what we’re doing right now. To understand that, to want to go out and play great Connecticut basketball every game, is a testament to those people who have done it before us.
“But I think for us to have a season like this, for us to have done it the way we did it, I’m proud of the team, I’m proud of how we stuck through it and proud of how we worked to get to where we are.”
Nurse, who joined UConn’s 1,000-point club at East Carolina on Jan. 24, will make her 107th career start against Mississippi State Friday night. The Huskies are perfect in games she’s been on the floor for the opening tip.
She’ll take her best shot to keep the streaks alive this weekend.
UConn junior Gabby Williams and sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were named to the 10-player United States Basketball Writers Association All-America team on Wednesday.
Samuelson and Collier are the only sophomores on the squad. Earlier this week, they were named to the five-player Associated Press All-America team while Williams was a second-team selection.
Joining the UConn trio on the USBWA team are Maryland’s Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, Washington’s Kelsey Plum, Washington, Notre Dame’s Brianna Turner, Oregon State’s Sydney Wiese, and South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson.