Kia Nurse's 'homecoming' game in Toronto a celebration of stellar collegiate career
Hamilton native scores 24 points in UConn's win over Duquesne
TORONTO — When Kia Nurse and the University of Connecticut women's basketball team took to the floor at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto for Friday's game against Duquesne University, it was a chance for the 21-year-old from nearby Hamilton, Ont., to play in front of friends and family.
It was also a celebration of a stellar four-year career at her second home — Storrs, Conn. — where Nurse has emerged as one of the top point guards in the country, recently being named to the 2018 Nancy Lieberman Award watch list that recognizes the best players at the position.
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But it almost never came to be.
When Huskies head coach Geno Auriemma was originally scouting Nurse, he was told she was a senior in high school and assumed she was attending college elsewhere.
But he was informed by assistant coach Shea Ralph, who saw Nurse play at a tournament in Washington D.C., that actually wasn't the case.
"I didn't think any more about her. It wasn't until Shea said, 'You know that kid that we saw from Canada, well she's only a junior,'" he recalls.
"That was a huge surprise. We loved her when we saw her and we can't believe we missed out on her. But we had another shot at it and the rest is history."
Nurse remembers receiving the call from the Hall of Fame coach and thinking they must have the wrong person. She said she always sold herself short and never thought she was good enough to play for a school as prestigious as UConn.
"I could put the ball in the hoop but not at a consistent basis when I was that age. I felt along the lines of, 'I just want to get to the tournament, play a game. If we make a run, be a Cinderella team – sure. Absolutely. To be in this program, it's the best decision I ever made," says Nurse who scored 24 points in UConn's 104-52 win on Friday.
Nurse's start as a Huskie was far from a fairy tale.
Just two games into her freshman year, Nurse fouled out in just 20 minutes played as UConn's 47-game win streak was snapped in an overtime loss against the Stanford Cardinals.
It was an early season wake-up call and Auriemma knew at that moment that he had to do something, so he inserted Nurse into the starting lineup for the next game.
"You could see right then and there, that was the change we were going to make. She was the spark that we were missing," Auriemma says.
Nurse knows it wasn't one of her finer moments, but it laid the foundation for her collegiate and international career.
"It was heartbreaking for me because I felt like I didn't do anything to help contribute to that game in the ways that I probably could. After that, coach called me into his office and was like, 'I'm going to start you to play defence.' It was an eye-opener of what are you really good at and [a lesson to] do that every single day," Nurse says.
Nurse's impact on the defensive end won't necessarily be seen in the boxscore, but throughout Friday's game against Duquesne it was evident.
She used her length to disrupt opponents and deny them the ball, and on one occasion Nurse directed her teammate's defensive position in transition.
It's something that Jim Fuller has seen from the Canuck almost since day one.
Fuller has written for the New Haven Register for 30 years, spending the last 15 as a beat writer for UConn's women's basketball team.
He says Nurse was fearless and never intimated by who she was up against. It's that competitive nature that's made her such a good fit for UConn's program.
"[If] you go in there and you don't have a high self-esteem, they're going to kill you because just to get on the court you're going up against All-Americans. She came in there with that attitude — to play and contribute. She came in and right away she was ready to get after it on the defensive end," Fuller told CBC Sports earlier this week.
As Nurse's collegiate career comes to a close, she can't avoid the thought of playing pro, but before Nurse takes that next step, her coach has one last wish for Nurse — a national championship.
"I'm hoping that her senior year ends the same way that her freshman year did," Auriemma says.