As if arriving at UConn for the first time to play women’s basketball wasn’t intimidating enough, consider the plight of Saniya Chong, the only scholarship freshman on the roster of the defending national champions.
Chong has to navigate her new world without a kindred spirit alongside her. Consider that seniors Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley comprised just 40 percent of a five-player class, that junior Kaleena Mosqueda Lewis came to school with Brianna Banks and Kiah Stokes and sophomores Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart had each other to lean on.
Chong, like Kelly Faris four autumns ago, is the lone member of the Class of 2013, joined just recently by freshman walk-on Tierney Lawlor of Ansonia. That means seeking older players out for questions. That means taking on freshman tasks, like keeping he cooler in the locker room stocked with water and energy drinks.
“It’s been challenging,” Chong said. “But I am ready for it.”
But there seems no reason to believe that Chong, the third consecutive Parade Magazine Player of the Year to come to UConn (Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart) will be able to step right up and help
“She is going to bring a definite spark for us off the bench,” Mosqueda-Lewis said
Chong, a 5-8 Ossining, N.Y. native, averaged 34.4 points, 5.6 rebounds and 9.1 rebounds in her final high school season, helping her team win a state championship. She scored at least 30 points in 51 of her 96 career high school games and especially effective in a fast-paced game.
“This team goes hard every second. I just need to try and match their intensity,” Chong said. “I think it helps that my team used a similar style in high school. But I still have work to do.”
Chong scored 2,988 points in four varsity seasons and she shot 87 percent from the free throw line. She scored 46 points in an 80-69 victory over St. Anthony’s (Melville) on Dec. 28, 2012 and then two days later drained nine three-pointers and scored 51 in a 90-84 victory over reigning state Class B champ Irvington.
On Jan. 4, she had 46 points in an 89-84 win against Christ the King (Middle Village), including 33 in the second half. She also made 108 three-pointers in 27 games last season.
What’s clear is that Geno Auriemma is not shy about playing freshman. Last season, Stewart was the Most Outstanding Player in the Final Four. Faris played in each of UConn’s 39 games as a freshman and averaged nearly 19 minutes per contest. And that team went undefeated and won the national championship in 2009-10.
Auriemma does not seem upset that this class includes just Chong. He already has three guards – Sadie Edwards, Courtney Ekmark and Gabby Williams – verbally committed for 2014. And he might still land the nation’s top unsigned player, South Carolina center A’ja Wilson, who most believe could develop into the next Tina Charles or Stefanie Dolson.
“We knew going in that it wasn’t going to be one of those classes like we had last year,” Auriemma said after Chong signed in November. “But what’s better … one player that you know is going to play 30 minutes maybe or five players and only two of them are going to play.”
Chong said it doesn’t matter that she’s the one recruit coming.
“Being the only freshman just challenges me,” Chong said. “Knowing that I’m the only one makes me strive harder. And being the only one, I don’t want to make a bad impression. I plan to give my all [to the program].
“Knowing that my high school days are over is sad, but I am also happy in another big way,” Chong said. “I’m excited to start new, with a new team and new friends. I’m just trying to be a part of the UConn Nation.”
Chong is also seems very committed and level-headed, extremely close to her mother, Leslie, and her family.
“A mama’s girl,” Chong called herself.
Chong is expected to room with UConn volleyball player Jade Strawberry, the daughter of former baseball great Darryl Strawberry. And she will play her career, and live the remainder of her life, committed to the memory of her brother, Andrew, who took his own life at age 20.
Inside of her left wrist is a tattoo, tinted in green, that reads “1985-2006″ to commemorate his life. He died when she was just in fifth grade and she got it when she was a sophomore in high school.
“I think of him every day, each time that I look at it,” Chong said.