STORRS - Crystal Dangerfield may have never felt so lonely.
As the media made its way into the UConn women’s basketball team’s locker room and surrounded the Huskies’ starters following their overtime loss to Mississippi State in last year’s NCAA Final Four semifinal in Dallas, Dangerfield sat on a bench in front of her corner locker by herself slouched over with her head in her hands.
In 17 minutes off the bench the point guard had one point, two rebounds, one assist and two turnovers. She was not on the floor when UConn had possession in a tie game with the shot clock off and a chance to take the last shot or at least go to a second overtime. Instead, a turnover by Saniya Chong gave the Bulldogs the ball and Morgan William’s buzzer-beater ... You know the rest.
“I definitely took it personally,” Dangerfield said. “I put some of the blame on myself because if I could have helped I would have obviously. But the whole year I didn’t give Coach [Geno Auriemma] reason to trust me that late in the game.”
She returned to work determined she’d make a difference as a sophomore. Even during her summer in Italy with the United States U-19 national team in July and on the Huskies’ tour in August the change was noticeable. And through preseason workouts, the regular season, and the American Athletic Conference tournament her effort and performance never wavered.
Unbeaten UConn is the overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament and the top seed for the Albany Regional. The Huskies begin their bid for a 12th national championship and fifth in six seasons on Saturday at 11 a.m. against Northeast Conference representative and No. 16 Saint Francis of Pennsylvania at Gampel Pavilion.
“From the start Crystal was like, ‘I’m the point guard and I’m going to do what I’m going to do,’ “ Auriemma said. “Last year she was walking around going, ‘I don’t know what to do so I’m not going to do anything.’
“It happened here before we left for Europe. Her attitude was different. Her approach was different. The way she carried herself was different. The way the other teams responded just was different.”
Dangerfield enters NCAA play averaging 9.6 points on 46.6 percent shooting from the floor, 2.1 rebounds, and 3.9 assists with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8. Her assists and assist-to-turnover ratio along with her 3-point shooting percentage of 44.8 rank in the top five in the league. She helped spark a charge against Notre Dame that erased a 10-point, fourth-quarter deficit in December and in January hit two free throws with 8.3 seconds left to ice a win at Texas.
Earlier this month she was selected to the all-AAC third team and picked up the first postseason honor of her career by being named to the AAC all-tournament team.
“The difference between this year and last year for is that in the months leading up to the tournament I had better practices and better games so there is something that I know I can fall back onto if necessary,” Dangerfield said. “You don’t rise to the level of the competition, you fall to the level of what you have been doing the entire time. That is the difference for me this year.”
And she’s done it playing in pain for at least two months as the Murfreesboro, Tennessee, native has dealt with shin splints in her left leg that have limited her practice and cost her two games.
By the time the Huskies (32-0) take the floor Saturday, it will have been 11 days since they beat South Florida for the AAC Tournament title at Mohegan Sun Arena.
“If they would have taken the vote for awards at the end of November, do you think she would have gotten something?” Auriemma said. “She was probably the best player on our team in November, but she hasn’t been able to practice. That happens. If you can’t practice it’s hard to get better. It’s hard to keep your rhythm and your timing, and she struggled with that.
“She is hopefully a little bit healthier now. She played well in the league tournament. She played great in the tournament. If we can get her some rest, hopefully she’ll play well on Saturday and then hopefully she will play Monday and then we have another week off, I hope. So it sets up well for someone who’s struggling physically a little bit.”
Mentally, though, Dangerfield is right where she wants to be.
If the Huskies win as expected Saturday, they’ll take on either eighth-seeded Miami-Florida or No. 9 Quinnipiac Monday for a spot in the Sweet 16 at the Times Union Center in Albany.
“I learned from last year that I can bring a lot of energy,” Dangerfield said. “Because I am so small, I can get up and annoy other guards, be pesky and push the ball up and down the floor. That’s my job to bring energy and make sure that I keep in control of the team.”
On the short list
UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson is one of four finalists for the 2018 Wade Trophy as the WBCA Player of the Year. The junior guard and two-time AAC Player of the Year is averaging 17.9 points on 53.1 percent shooting from the floor, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8.
The other finalists are Oregon sophomore Sabrina Ionescu, Ohio State senior Kelsey Mitchell, and South Carolina senior A’ja Wilson. The winner will be announced at the NCAA Final Four in Columbus, Ohio, March 31.
Auriemma is one of four finalists for the Naismith Trophy as Coach of the Year, the Atlanta Tipoff Club announced. He has won the award a record nine times.
The other finalists are Oregon’s Kelly Graves, Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw, and Mississippi State’s Vic Schaefer. The winner will be announced March 31.
Rizzotti on USA staff
Former UConn star and Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti, who guided George Washington to the Atlantic-10 tournament title and a NCAA Tournament bid this month, has been selected to serve as an assistant coach for the 2018 USA Basketball women’s national team that will compete in the 2018 FIBA World Cup of Basketball this fall.
Also joining USA head coach Dawn Staley’s staff are Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, who was an assistant on Auriemma’s national team staff when the Americans won the gold medal at the 2014 world championships and 2016 Olympics, and Seattle Storm coach Dan Hughes.
Rizzotti coached the 2010 U-18 national team to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship. In 2011, she guided one of the youngest teams at the FIBA U-19 world championships to gold paced by UConn players Stefanie Dolson, Bria Hartley, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Morgan Tuck, and Breanna Stewart and was named USA Basketball Coach of the Year. The New Fairfield native was an advance scout/court coach for Auriemma’s 2014 and 2016 gold-medal teams.