While the University of Connecticut women's basketball team will be shooting for a national championship three-peat starting in about a month, Saniya Chong doesn't want a repeat.
In the final four games of the Huskies' run to the 2014 NCAA title, Chong played a total of 3:16 and never more than 1:01. She got in for the final 43.9 seconds of the championship game rout of Notre Dame.
So Chong is trying to build momentum for herself down the stretch, which continues Tuesday night when No. 1 UConn goes for its 24th straight win against Houston in American Athletic Conference action at the XL Center in Hartford (7 p.m., SNY).
"I was talking to this year’s freshmen and some of the other guys about what it’s going to take to play in the NCAA tournament, what kind of mindset you have to have to play in the NCAA tournament or in games like South Carolina," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I said if you don’t believe me or you don’t think I’m telling the truth … Then I went, ‘I’m not kidding, am I Saniya?’ And she said, ‘No, you’re not.’ Because if you’re not ready for those big moments in the NCAA tournament, I’m not going to play you just because you’re a nice kid. My daughters, Jenna and Alysa, are really nice kids but I wouldn’t want them on my team."
In her last seven games, Chong is averaging 9.7 points on 72,7 percent from the floor and 81.3 percent from 3-point land. The sophomore guard's assist-to-turnover ratio is a plus-1.6.
But the contest she earned the most praise from her teammates and coaches came eight days ago. While she had just two points, she helped shut down South Carolina star guard Tiffany Mitchell in the second half as UConn pulled away for an 87-62 win.
"That meant a lot to me," Chong said. "Even though I didn’t bring the scoring, I thought that I brought other things like getting in my stance defensively and just assisting my teammates."
The Ossining, New York, native earned a starting spot in the preseason but it lasted just two games. While she netted a career high of 20 points against Stanford, Cardinal guards Amber Orrange and Lili Thompson had their way with Chong in the UConn defensive zone as the Huskies saw their 47-game winning streak snapped with an 88-86 overtime loss in Palo Alto on Nov. 17.
Returning to a reserve role was a bit of an adjustment and Chong had her ups and downs for two months. But it’s no coincidence that she’s practiced well in recent weeks. She’s gaining confidence and Auriemma’s trust.
"If I don’t think you can handle the stuff that we throw at you in practice, you’re not going to play," Auriemma said. "Everybody gets the same opportunity. I love when people say, ‘What does practice have to do with it? Just put them in the game and let them play.’ Well, good. That’s why they don’t do what I do. That’s why we win big games. That’s why every big game, we play big, because the guys I have on the floor are guys that are trustworthy. You can count on what they are going to do, how they are going to do it and handle the big moment. I put them in those big moments in practice.
"A player is going to have as much confidence as the coaching staff has in them, and vice versa. If a kid is moping around and pouting, you’re not going to have confidence in that kid and that kid is not going to have any confidence. If that kid is playing well and is doing stuff and is being successful in practice and you keep putting them in difficult situations and they keep responding and you acknowledge that, they keep getting better. That’s where Saniya is right now."
And right now, the Huskies look like they have a solid bench and eight-player rotation with Chong, Kiah Stokes, and Gabby Williams in reserve.
"The deeper your bench is, the better your chances are of winning," UConn point guard Moriah Jefferson said."
UConn (24-1 overall, 13-0 AAC) holds a two-game lead over South Florida in the league race and should have few problems with Houston (6-19, 1-12), which is struggling under first-year coach Ronald Hughey. The Cougars have lost 11 straight games.
For Chong, though, it’s another chance to make an impression as she marches toward March.
"I’m happy, but obviously there are ways to improve," Chong said. "I just want to contribute and make sure I’m doing what I need to do on the court."