Azura Stevens feels like she is playing her best ball of the season for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team, but knows she has to be even better if the Huskies are to reach all of their postseason goals.
"I have definitely not gotten there yet," Stevens said. "I think coming in at first it was pretty easy. It wasn't easy, but I kind of started off pretty well. Then I hit a wall. I'm really grateful to my team and my coaches for allowing me to go through that. I had to do a lot of maturing and growing up. They were really patient with me and continued to work with me.
"Now I think it's a confidence boost for myself going into the postseason sort of continuing to do things that I've worked on and being more in tune and in synch with my teammates. What better time for that to happen than right now with postseason play coming up. It feels really good to I guess be on the downward slope of that hill."
The redshirt junior forward was rewarded for her regular season efforts Friday as she became the first UConn player to be named the American Athletic Conference Newcomer of the Year and the second in five AAC seasons to be chosen the league's Sixth Man Award winner.
Guard Kia Nurse was named the Defensive Player of the Year.
The top-ranked and AAC regular season champion Huskies (29-0) placed four players -- seniors Nurse and Gabby Williams, and juniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier -- on the all-league first team with Samuelson the only unanimous selection on the seven-player squad. Stevens was a second-team pick while sophomore Crystal Dangerfield was chosen to the third team.
The press conference announcing the AAC Player, Freshman, Coach, and Scholar-Athlete of the Year will be held Saturday morning at Mohegan Sun. UConn will begin its bid for a fifth consecutive AAC tournament title Sunday at 6:30 p.m. with a quarterfinal game between the winner of Saturday's first-round contest between No. 8 Memphis and ninth-seeded Tulane.
Stevens, who played her first two seasons at Duke before transferring to UConn in 2016, played in all 29 games with seven starts. In 21.1 minutes, she averaged 14.6 points on 60.3 percent shooting from the floor, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocked shots. She ranks 12th in the league in scoring, ninth in rebounds, and second in field-goal percentage and blocked shots. On Tuesday, she became the fifth UConn player this season to be named the AAC Player of the Week marking the first time the Huskies have had five players win the league weekly honor in a single season.
"Z is starting to do so many other things that our team needed," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. (Last Monday against South Florida) you got to see a bunch of those things at both ends of the floor. Somebody like that could be the difference between playing the last weekend and not playing the last weekend."
While at Duke, Stevens was known for her perimeter game. Auriemma and his staff has tried to get her to use her height (6-foot-6) to her advantage offensively and defensively. Of note, the Raleigh, North Carolina, native is shooting 68.7 percent from inside the arc and just 16.7 percent behind it. She also leads the Huskies in offensive rebounds with 74.
"I had to have confidence in myself, especially around the basket," Stevens said. "I just had to develop an edginess to my game. That has always been something that I needed to work on. I think here it really forced me to face it and confront it and work at it every day and realize that it wasn't going to be easy to acquire that attitude. But now that I am getting on the other side, I don't want to go back to how I was before.
"Coach always talks about that how stringing along a couple really good days in practice will help you have that mentality in a game. You can't just flip it on when you want to. I think, really, taking it day by day and trying to conquer each day helped me get to the much better place I'm in right now."
Williams was the AAC Sixth Man Award winner in 2015 while Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (2012) and Ketia Swanier (2008) won the honor during UConn's Big East days.
The Huskies placed four players on the league first team for the first time since doing it in back-to-back years in 2014-15. It is the second straight first-team honor for Samuelson and Collier, who were AAC Co-Players of the Year last season, as well as Williams. Nurse was a second-team pick as a junior and a third-team selection as a freshman and sophomore.
The Hamilton, Ontario, native becomes the fifth UConn player -- joining Maya Moore (2008-11), Tina Charles (2007-10), Ann Strother (2003-06), and Svetlana Abrosimova (1998-2001) -- to be named to the all-league first, second, or third team in all four of her seasons. She also continues UConn's domination of the Defensive Player of the Year award joining past winners Williams (2017), Moriah Jefferson (2016), Kiah Stokes (2015), and Stefanie Dolson (2014). Kelly Faris (2013), Ashley Battle (2003), and Nykesha Sales (1997-98) took the honor as Big East players.
Nurse is averaging a career best 14.5 points along with 3.2 rebounds, and 3.0 assists and ranks in the AAC top 10 in field-goal percentage (seventh, 54.4), 3-point percentage (second, 47.4), free-throw percentage (fifth, 81.8), and assist-to-turnover ratio (fourth, 2.4).
Williams checks in averaging 10.7 points and is third in the AAC in field-goal percentage (58.6), sixth in rebounding (7.7), second in assists (5.2), fifth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.0), and third in steals (2.6).
Samuelson, who has missed five games this season due to left foot/left ankle injuries, leads the Huskies in scoring at 18.3 points, which is seventh in the league, to go with 4.3 rebounds. She is in the AAC's top 10 in assists (3.8, tie for seventh), assist-to-turnover ratio (second, 2.8), field-goal percentage (sixth, 54.4), 3-point percentage (first, 49.0), and free-throw percentage (fourth, 81.9).
Collier ranks among the AAC leaders in scoring (ninth, 15.5), rebounds (seventh, 7.6), blocked shots (third, 1.9), steals (12th, 1.7), field-goal percentage (fourth, 57.2), and free-throw percentage (ninth, 78.7).
Rounding out the first team are South Florida's Maria Jespersen and Kitija Laksa, and Temple's Tanaya Atkinson.
Joining Stevens on the second team are Wichita State's Rangie Bessard, Houston's Jasmyne Harris, Tulane's Kolby Morgan, and Central Florida's Zakiya Saunders.
Dangerfield, who has missed two games and has played since early January with shin splints in her left leg, is averaging 9.5 points while ranking fourth in the league in assists (4.1) and third in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8). She is also shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point land.
Also named to the third team were Memphis' Cheyenne Creighton and Brea Elmore, SMU's McKenzie Adams, Houston's Angela Harris, and Cincinnati's Ana Owens.
UConn had no one chosen for the all-freshman team, the first time the Huskies have been blanked in that category since 2002.
Temple's Atkinson, a New Haven, Connecticut, native and the league's leading scorer (21.0) and second-leading rebounder (9.3), was named the AAC's Most Improved Player. SMU's Adams was given the Ambassador (formerly Sportsmanship) Award.