Canadian guard Kia Nurse kept it simple to reach her full potential
UConn senior is finalist for top guard in NCAA
The Connecticut Huskies head into this year's NCAA women's basketball tournament in a familiar place.
Once again, they're undefeated and enter as the No.1 overall seed. The Huskies begin their quest for a record 12th national title on Saturday against No.16 Pennsylvania in the Albany region (11:00 a.m. ET).
But without Canada's Kia Nurse, UConn might not be in the same position.
The Hamilton, Ont., native is having the best season of her collegiate career averaging a career-high 13.8 points per game on 52.4 per cent shooting from the field.
Nurse is also one of college basketball's best outside threats, shooting 45.5 per cent from downtown (seventh in the nation).
The 22-year-old is a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman award — given to the top point guard in college basketball — and the Dawn Staley award as the top guard in the nation.
Nurse is a bonafide star but embracing the spotlight and increased responsibility that came along with it took some time.
Entering the 2016-17 season, the Huskies lost three starters — Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck. Suddenly, Nurse was the leader of a young squad with high expectations and it was tough for her to handle according to longtime beat writer Jim Fuller.
"I think she's more comfortable. Last year was tough because she was the most experienced returning player," Fuller told CBC Sports earlier this season. "They lost three All-Americans — the top three picks in the WNBA draft. She came into the season like, 'I gotta be the star,' and it hurt her.
"She didn't play up to her capabilities for long stretches early in the season."
Keeping it simple
Fuller said that Nurse isn't forcing the issue as much this season. She's letting everyone around her do their jobs while taking a more simplified approach and not doing too much.
There were times last season in which Nurse tried to become more of a slasher rather than a sharpshooter. Opponents took note of that and had players set up in the key ready to take the charge.
Nowadays, a more mature Nurse is fully aware of what her strengths are and she's playing to them.
"Teams had the scouting report on her. They were just waiting for her [in the key] and get offensive fouls called — it seemed every game she had one or two. This year, she's not doing that. She's hitting the mid-range jumper, making the three, or she's making the extra pass. She's become a more well-rounded player," Fuller recalls.
This past season, Nurse was named the American Athletic Conference's defensive player of the year. It's been her calling card since day one but Fuller notes that it's very rare for players to come through the program and leave the same player.
Nurse has been a more active presence on the glass averaging a career-high 3.3 rebounds per contest and while her assists are down a bit, she's shown better decision making with the ball in her hands.
The Huskies guard has turned over the ball a career-low 38 times in 32 games.
"It's making her a very tough player to guard because they have All-Americans at every spot on that team. She doesn't feel like the weight of the world is on her shoulders — she can just play basketball like she knows how to," Fuller said.
Nurse has learned to relax and slow down the pace of her game. She's realized that there are times in which she has to turn down her intensity.
Fuller remembers Nurse treating some plays as if they were all or nothing. These days, she isn't always playing in high-gear — she manages herself accordingly.
"When things aren't going well, her solution was to play harder. It hurt her at times because she's trying so hard, to score seven points on a possession and now she's kind of just playing," Fuller said.
The emergence of sophomore point guard Crystal Dangerfield has helped Nurse's offensive game. Fuller says it's allowed her to play off the ball more — where's she more comfortable — similar to the Canadian national team where point guard Miah-Marie Langlois frees up Nurse to be more aggressive offensively.
"When she came in, that's when I thought Kia played her best because now Kia can think about scoring [and] not be concerned as being the floor leader. I think that suits her personality a lot better to be an aggressive scoring threat who can pass instead of having to be the person expected to get all her teammates involved," Fuller said.
It's sounds plain and simple, but if Nurse is able to play her game, she'll leave UConn with her third national championship in four years.