When you’ve spent your high school years putting the ball in the basket, like Saniya Chong did at Ossining (N.Y.) High, where she scored 2,988 points, people tend to notice when the process comes to a halt in college.
Coming into UConn’s game Wednesday against Central Florida at the XL Center, Chong had played two consecutive games and 52 minutes without scoring a point. And then another six minutes passed at the start of the Huskies’ 83-35 win without any change.
Then things started to change. With 13:37 to play in the first half, UConn already ahead 13-4, Chong took a perfect pass from Stefanie Dolson and scored her first basket. She was on her way to a career-high 17 points, accented by a career-high 10 rebounds and the first double-double in college.
“Those are the things that we saw when we watched her play in high school,” Geno Aureimma said. “I’m pretty sure she hadn’t gotten a bucket in the previous sixty-five minutes…I don’t think that is why we recruited her – based on those sixty-five minutes. She obviously has a lot of skills that can help our team. It is a matter of understanding what it is you can do and going out and doing it. Today, [Wednesday] looked like it was kind of easy for her.”
As No. 1 UConn (27-0) moves forward in its chase of a ninth national championship, the play of Chong will be an integral part of any success it has. And that goes double for as long as junior Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis must sit with mononucleosis.
Chong made her second straight start on Wednesday and it came on the heels of a 37-minute effort at South Florida last Sunday that yielded not a single point.
“She’s practiced well,” Auriemma said. “She’s looked really good. She’s not going to look like Bria Hartley or Moriah Jefferson at this point. She just needs to get over this mental block that she’s developed a little bit about being tentative. And little by little, I think she’s going to get over that.”
Chong was 7 of 13 from the field after going 0-for-5 in her last two games; a good start in the reclamation process. She also had three assists after collecting just two in the five games and 119 minutes preceding it.
After the USF game, Chong answered a series of questions dealing with her mental outlook and confidence level. Since she scored 16 points on eight shots at Penn State on Nov. 17, she’d taken that many just one other time, during a 10-point game against UC Davis on Dec. 5.
The interrogation was similar to the one she dealt with prior to scoring 12 points at Cincinnati Feb. 1, a performance that seemed to snap her from her slump.
“It’s just been a case of feeling unsure at times,” Chong said. “That’s the thing is I need to get out of my head; stop thinking like that, just be very aggressive and give it my all.”
Chong helped herself Wednesday by riding the wind of UConn’s transition offense. That put her on the business end of many scoring opporunties and she cashed them in.
“Starting was a huge step for me,” Chong said. “I was a little nervous about it when I told [she was starting at South Florida] … I just have to make sure that I come out aggressively and try to get to the basket as much as I can.”
Wednesday was also a good night for junior Brianna Banks. After missing two games with recurring ankle problems, and playing just two minutes at USF, Banks scored five points in 25 minutes with five assists and three steals.
Like Chong, Auriemma has also noticed tentativeness within Banks, so much so he seemed uncertain about putting her into a game until Wednesday.
“Banks can probably play as many minutes as she wants,” Auriemma said. “If she doesn’t play at all, that’s what she deserves. If she plays 25 minutes, that’s also what she deserves. That’s how she is. She is her own worst enemy. But when she comes out and practices well it carries over into games. She earned those minutes and they are a huge benefit to us.”
It’s likely Banks and Chong will play at lot more during the regular season as Auriemma tries to give Moriah Jefferson some time to rest. Jefferson played just 16 minutes on Wednesday, Auriemma’s way to help her get over some general achiness.
“The big guys don’t take as much pounding as the guards do,” Auriemma said.
The Huskies, 14-0 in the American Athletic Conference and winners of 33 straight, leave for Houston Friday where they will play the 1,000th game of Auriemma’s career on Saturday.
The trip continues Tuesday at SMU before they return home for Senior Day on March 1 for Dolson and Bria Hartley at Gampel Pavilion against Rutgers. Hartley entered the record book again Wednesday by joining Maya Moore as just the second player in UConn history with at least 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 500 assists and 200 steals.