MOHEGAN INDIAN RES. - Moriah Jefferson wasn’t sure if it was a dream or an April Fool’s Day joke.
The former UConn All-American point guard learned in the early hours of April 1 that the Huskies’ record winning streak and reign as national champion had ended with a loss to Mississippi State in the NCAA Final Four semifinals. But since she had a game with her team in Turkey that afternoon, Jefferson went back to sleep only to wake up hours later to realize it was all true.
Fast forward to the summer and her second season in the WNBA, and Jefferson is living a nightmare with the San Antonio Stars.
San Antonio enters tonight’s home game with the Indiana Fever at 2-18, five games clear for the worst record in the league and seven games behind the final playoff spot with 14 games to play. Jefferson, who did not lose the final game of any season playing scholastically in Texas or in college at UConn, will likely be watching the postseason from home for the second consecutive year.
“There are just mental breakdowns that happen every game where we go five or six minutes and it gets away from us,” Jefferson said. “If we cut those out, some things would be different. We’re talented all across the board and you can see that with our players. But we need to be mentally focused for 40 minutes to win.”
Nine of the Stars’ losses have been by single figures. Many have played out like last Sunday’s game against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena. San Antonio led by seven early in the third quarter before turnovers - including two by Jefferson - turned the game in the Sun’s favor and the Stars never recovered.
“We’re young, but at some point that has to go away and you learn how to win,” Jefferson said. “You’re a professional. We’re learning from our mistakes, though. If we do that it will come together.”
But Jefferson has had her share of individual issues.
She is averaging 10.2 points, shooting 52.4 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from 3-point land. She ranks in the top 10 in the league in assists (eighth at 4.4) and steals (third at 1.8). But she also missed the first three games of the season with a knee injury and two more last week due to a concussion.
In four years at UConn, she missed one of 156 games.
It was her second concussion in 24 months, with her first coming in the 2015 Pan American Games gold-medal game against Canada following a collision with her UConn teammate, Canadian Kia Nurse.
“Thank God I didn’t hit Kia again because her head is a lot bigger,” Jefferson said with a laugh. “I got stepped on in the game and my head hit the floor. I’m fine now. My trainers made sure I was physically and mentally ready to play before I got back on the court.
“It’s tough to not play and sit there knowing that I could help them. But it is teaching me patience. My body does need a rest. I’ve played a long time. Things happen and you can’t control them but it’s how you come back from them.
Jefferson has also spent much of the season coming off the bench behind rookie Kelsey Plum.
“There’s a lot of stuff going on with me personally, physically,” Jefferson said. “Everyone knows that I’m taking care of some things. It’s not a big deal. I don’t mind not starting. Whenever I come in, I come in. As long as we’re all on the court and we’re all playing together, it’s fine with me.”
Jefferson did start in the loss to the Atlanta Dream Tuesday night for the injured Kayla McBride. But backing up Plum seems somewhat baffling as the No. 1 pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft has not come close to living up to the hype she had coming out of the University of Washington as the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer.
Still, Jefferson unequivocally supports first-year coach Vickie Johnson, who replaced veteran Dan Hughes.
“VJ is amazing and an incredible coach,” Jefferson said. “She does everything she needs to do to have us prepared. Then it’s our job to go out and execute when we’re on the court. A lot of people don’t see what she does. She’s one of the smartest coaches I’ve played for. It’s not her fault we have lapses and mental breakdowns. That responsibility is on us. We have to step up to the plate.”
Jefferson, the overall No. 2 pick behind Breanna Stewart in the 2016 draft, was a unanimous selection to the all-rookie team a year ago.
She believes her experiences in San Antonio and Turkey have helped her.
“I’ve been in situations before so I’m a better leader and smarter,” Jefferson said. “It helps a lot when you’ve played against these players before. You learn their tendencies. You know the game will be faster, quicker, and stronger. Just being smarter with the ball, coming off screens, knowing where my teammates want the ball, things like that.”
Jefferson will return to Turkey this winter to complete a two-year deal she signed in 2016.
But first she hopes for some success with the Stars following this weekend’s All-Star break. San Antonio was the only team in the league to not have a player selected for the Game to be played Saturday in Seattle.
“The second half will be like a new season,” Jefferson said. “You go back to the drawing board and make sure we do the things we need to so we’ll be ready to play.”