STORRS, Conn. - There isn't a team in America - including her own - that Azura Stevens could not start for, though she came off the bench in her first outing with the University of Connecticut women's basketball team Wednesday night.
It's not that Stevens, who spent her first two years at Duke as a starter before leaving and transferring to UConn 18 months ago, has been anything less then what the Huskies expected.
Crystal Dangerfield has been that good.
"Crystal has come a long way from last year to this year," UConn senior guard Kia Nurse said. "I think we saw it coming into the summer, and it has continued to progress each and every day coming into the season.
"I love playing with her. She is high energy, Her ability to see the floor and make passes on target and on time is great. And her reads and her ability to score off ball screens are both really good. Continuing to work together and find out little niches about each other is going to be fun."
Dangerfield joined the Huskies' four returning starters in the first five Wednesday for the preseason opener against Division II Fort Hays State. Unless coach Geno Auriemma has a change of heart, she will do so again Sunday when No. 1 UConn meets Ashland (Ohio) - the top-ranked team and reigning champion of Division II - at Gampel Pavilion.
"I came back with a lot more confidence after playing USA Basketball this summer, and I think I built a lot more trust with my teammates," Dangerfield said. "I think that's helping a lot so far."
In 31 games including six starts a season ago, Dangerfield averaged 6.1 points and ranked ninth in the American Athletic Conference in assists at 3.7 and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio at 2.2. She was named to the league's all-freshman team. Her best game came on Nov. 17 when she had 19 points and five assists in a win over Baylor.
But after scoring 16 points in UConn's NCAA tournament opener against Albany, she had just two points in each of the next three wins. Against Mississippi State she had one point, an assist, and two turnovers in 17 minutes. At the end, all she could do was watch as the Bulldogs ended the Huskies' 111-game winning streak and four-year reign as national champion,
"I definitely had a little bit of a slide my freshman year," Dangerfield said. "Coming back this year I just feel a lot better. I feel like I'm playing like I was in high school.
"Coming back with last year in my head and being able to understand what is actually going on here, it's allowed me to come back without second-guessing things. Now I'm going out there with confidence and working hard and playing hard."
In Wednesday's 82-37 win over Fort Hays State she had eight points and seven assists in 23 minutes of action.
Part of the reason for starting Dangerfield, Auriemma explained, was to keep the returning starters - three of whom were All-Americans - in positions they were successful in a season ago. In her debut, Stevens also looked comfortable in her reserve role as she had 15 points, seven rebounds, three assists and four blocked shots.
While Fort Hays State was over matched, there were a number of good signs for UConn. Nurse, who led the American Athletic Conference in 3-point shooting percentage last season, was 5-for-7 from behind the arc and had a game high 19 points. All-American Napheesa Collier was her stat-stuffing self with 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists, four blocked shots, and three steals. All-American Katie Lou Samuelson earned praise for her all-around game from Auriemma and finished with 11 points. All-American Gabby Williams picked up two fouls in a seven-second span of the opening 1:27 but stayed on the floor and didn't get her third foul until late in the third quarter. The senior had eight points and nine rebounds to go with four blocked shots.
More important, UConn's freshman class will be able to make a second impression Sunday after having some opening-night jitters against Fort Hays State.
Megan Walker had two points, two rebounds, and two assists in 13 minutes. Lexi Gordon had a basket in her five minutes. Mikayla Coombs had two rebounds in seven minutes. Andra Espinoza-Hunter had a rebound, assist, and steal in 14 minutes.
"I've seen them getting better every day in practice and gaining more and more confidence," Collier said. "It's obviously just the beginning for them and I think you're going to see a lot from them this year."
Ashland was 37-0 a season ago and won all six of its NCAA tournament games by double figures on its way to the Division II national championship.
The Eagles return their top three scorers in senior D-2 All-Americans Laina Snyder (17.4) and Andi Daugherty (15.5) along with sophomore Jodi Johnson. Ten of the 11 players on coach Robyn Fralick's squad are from Ohio.
Ashland opened its preseason schedule with a 110-80 loss at No. 5 Ohio State last Sunday.