It is remarkable that Kia Nurse remembers what it was like to lose a U.S. college basketball game, given it happened so long ago. Most of her teammates don’t even know.
The 6-foot Canadian guard is one of only a few UConn players who were on the prestigious women’s basketball team when it last lost. On Nov. 17, 2014, No. 6-ranked Stanford ended a 47-game Huskies win streak by beating them 88-86 in overtime.
“It was just the second game of my career at UConn,” Nurse recalled. “I remember feeling so bad for the seniors on our team. I felt like there was more I could have done to help in that game.”
If winning 47 consecutive games seemed incredible then, it seems like nothing now.
UConn is riding a historic 107-game winning streak and looking for another NCAA national championship. It is arguably the most successful program in U.S. sports today. Nurse is a big reason why.
The Huskies are 32-0 this season, set to open the NCAA tournament on Saturday at home in Storrs, Conn., against 16th-seeded Albany in what’s likely to be a breezy victory. But believe it or not, UConn began the season ranked No. 3 in the polls. The Huskies had just graduated the nation’s three best female players after four successive national championships, then watched them go first, second and third in the WNBA draft. Without that superstar trio this season, UConn finally appeared beatable.
Fresh off her Rio Olympic appearance with Team Canada, Nurse was among those to fill the leadership void left by departed stars Moriah Jefferson, Morgan Tuck, and Breanna Stewart – MVP in the past four Final Fours and one of the greatest UConn players in history. A third-year UConn starter, Nurse is battling the doubters and fighting through a late-season ankle injury, as she plays for a squad being followed by an HBO documentary crew and led by demanding coach Geno Auriemma, winner of 11 national titles during his 32 seasons there.
Nurse not only shoulders the pressure. She loves it.
“We lost three All-Americans and had no All-Americans coming back to our team, so no one thought we’d be undefeated at this point,” Nurse said in a phone interview this week from campus. “There are a lot of banners up in our gym, a lot of great players’ names up there, so every time we play we ask ourselves ‘are we honouring the people who built UConn women’s basketball with the way we played today?’”
The Huskies have toppled opponents by an average of 30 points this season and led startling blowouts – 102-37 over the University of South Florida, 100-56 over Tulane, 105-57 over Tulsa. But there have been a few heart-stoppers, too.
During the first game of the season, a 78-76 win over Florida State, cameras caught Auriemma storming up and down the sidelines muttering “we’re worse than I thought,” and then calmly blasting his players at halftime as they trailed. “This is a classic example of guys who have never had to work hard for anything in college. Maybe everyone around the country was right about you. Maybe those guys did take Connecticut with them when they left.”
Last year HBO followed Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team in a docuseries. This season, the network chose to go deep behind the scenes with Auriemma’s squad – dubbing it “the best college basketball program ever.” The show, airing weekly during March in the United States, attempts to find out what makes UConn so uniquely unconquerable.
“He’ll never tell us how good we are – that never happens around here,” Nurse told The Globe and Mail. “He pushes us every day, about every detail. He harps on your every little mistake. Walk into one of our practices right now and I can guarantee no one will be talking about any win streak.”
The docuseries, entitled UConn: March to Madness shows Auriemma’s blunt honesty, and the culture he creates in which all players abandon individual aspirations to sacrifice for the good of the team. He’s unapologetically direct, helping the players grow thick skin and learn tough lessons, saying things like: “I can’t give you a heart … I didn’t expect the kids in Connecticut uniforms to back down … we have a bunch of scared guys in this group right now … if I look in your eyes and you’re scared, you won’t play.”
Rather than boost their confidence by talking about their record, the coach, who is simultaneously beloved and feared, constantly reminds them that they’ve merely survived one more game. His players appreciate the fact that he doesn’t believe female athletes ought to be treated more gently than males. His demanding program has produced a nearly 100-per-cent graduation rate and sent 33 players to the WNBA.
“On this year’s team, we don’t have anyone on the cover of Sports Illustrated or anyone that’s going to win the Naismith Player of the Year. We just have to have a bunch of guys who are willing to fight for every little thing,” Auriemma is heard on the show, as he talked to the women after one early season win. “There’s all this talk that this is the year someone is going to beat us because no one has a whole lot of respect for you guys individually or as a team. Well they might. But not tonight.”
While Nurse and fellow junior Gabby Williams share leadership duties for this team, it’s Williams, along with sophomores Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier who grab most of the headlines. Nurse is averaging 31 minutes a game this year, along with a career-high 12 points and four assists, but usually her biggest impact is on defence and hustle plays.
“She’s been the team’s Steady Eddy, one of their best defenders and the team’s rock,” said Bob Joyce, the team’s long-time play-by-play voice on the UConn Radio Network, reached by phone. “Kia and Gabby are the two toughest kids on the team and the glue that holds the group together. She isn’t the player that dazzles, but when she missed games due to the ankle injury, it was very obvious UConn was missing its best perimeter defender.”
Nurse was sidelined 2 1/2 weeks at the end of the regular season after rolling her right ankle in practice. At UConn’s top-notch facilities, she rehabbed with pool workouts and by jogging on an anti-gravity treadmill that enclosed her lower body in a special airtight plastic bag to reduce the weight on her ankle. She was told a stress reaction typically takes six to eight weeks to heal, but she rushed back early before the American Athletic Conference tournament.
“We did what we could and it’s going to have to be good enough to play on it for another few weeks,” Nurse said.
The 107-game streak is the most in NCAA basketball history. Earlier this season, the program eclipsed the record of 88 successive wins by the UCLA men’s team, led by coach John Wooden, from 1970-74.
The Huskies were tested in meetings with a few of their ranked opponents this year, such as Baylor, Notre Dame and Maryland. They also let unranked Tulane within three points of an upset late in the season.
Nurse has experienced lost more recently than some of her teammates though. She and the Canadian team suffered a disappointing elimination in the quarter-finals at the Rio Olympics and did not bring home a medal as many projected they would.
“For a few weeks after Rio, I felt pure disappointment. I wanted to fix everything in one day but knew that couldn’t happen. It helped me remember what I need to improve at and appreciate how hard it is to win,” Nurse said. “I learned from some of the leaders on the Canadian team too – Kim Gaucher, Shona Thorburn, Lizanne Murphy. I brought some of their leadership qualities back with me to UConn this year.”
UConn does its best to give every player a game close to her home town during her senior season, and Nurse will be no exception next year. The Huskies will take on Duquesne at Ryerson University’s Mattamy Athletic Centre during the 2017-18 season, UConn’s first regular-season game in Canada.
“I’m really excited for it because my family and friends don’t get to come see me play that often, and I can’t wait to be there in Canada with my team,” Nurse said. “I was in awe of the UConn women when I was a kid. It’s cool to think there might be some girls in Toronto watching that night who say ‘I want to play for UConn someday.’”
Impressive streaks in sports
Consecutive games played: Cal Ripken Jr., 2,632 (MLB)
Consecutive saves: Éric Gagné, 84 (MLB)
Consecutive home games won: Golden State Warriors, 54 (Basketball Reference)
Longest undefeated streak: Rocky Marciano, 49-0 (official website)
Golf (PGA Tour)
Consecutive tournament wins: Byron Nelson, 11 (golf.com)
Consecutive 50-goal seasons: Mike Bossy, 9 (NHL)
Consecutive seasons with at least 20 goals: Gordie Howe, 22 (NHL.com)
Consecutive weeks at No. 1: Roger Federer, 237 (ATP)
Consecutive singles titles: Martina Navratilova, 13 (WTA)