Kia Nurse’s historic night for UConn ends Syracuse’s season, 94-64, in NCAA Tournament second round
Evan Jenkins | Staff Photographer
STORRS, Conn. — Kia Nurse put her head down, shook it and ran back down the court to play defense. A wry smile crept across her face as she set up on the other side of the court after knocking down her seventh 3-pointer of the first half.
As head coach Geno Auriemma said after the game, the 6-foot junior had come to Connecticut to be a spot-up shooter. She found success too, hitting at a 45.5-percent clip on the year. She had two games earlier this season where she shot well and nailed a then-career-high six 3s, including in Saturday’s first-round matchup against Albany.
None of that compared to what happened on Monday night. In No. 1 seed UConn’s (34-0, 16-0 American Athletic) 94-64 thumping over No. 8 seed Syracuse (22-11, 11-5 Atlantic Coast), Nurse had the shooting performance of her life. She drilled eight first-half 3s and tacked on a ninth in the second half — banking in one from the corner — to tie the all-time record for 3s made in an NCAA Tournament game.
“Usually when Kia hits the side of the backboard in practice it goes out of bounds,” Auriemma quipped. “This time it happened to go in, so you knew it was a big night for us.”
Syracuse’s defense got shredded for most of the game. But in the beginning, SU compounded those issues by struggling to make shots, hitting just five field goals. UConn consistently pushed through easily and scored early. The four starters who scored in the game each had at least one basket in the first quarter. Three of those were 3s from Nurse, but it didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary flow of UConn’s game.
But the ball kept finding her in the second quarter, as she was open behind the arc. After SU made more baskets, it had a bit longer to set up. But once the press got broken Syracuse scrambled to find players in the halfcourt, and Nurse kept ending up with open looks behind the arc.
Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman said that UConn inverted its offensive sets, which confused the SU defense and resulted in Nurse getting all those looks. Normally, Hillsman said, Nurse is the one bringing the ball up the court. UConn switched things around, camping Nurse out on the 3-point line. SU’s defense collapsed when the ball reached the high post and as that happened, Nurse slid up or down to the open spot and buried shot after shot.
“We as a staff and myself particularly,” Hillsman said, “gotta do a better job of making sure that our players can adjust if they invert their personnel.”
Nurse’s five 3s in the second quarter nearly matched SU’s 18 points in the frame and it overshadowed any positives the Orange could try and take from the game. The Gampel Pavilion crowd noisily anticipated every touch she had. After her last 3 of the quarter, the fans gave her a standing ovation even as play was still going on.
Nurse’s celebrations after every made long ball grew as the half progressed. Small nods turned into large fist pumps toward whichever teammate had assisted on the shot. Nurse became seemingly confident with the shots she took and surprised at how frequently they went in. It was a culmination of extra shooting that Nurse did in the time leading up to the start of the Tournament.
“A little bit of both, maybe,” she said. “… I felt like this week, if I could get in the gym and see a couple go through the net, just shoot them confidently and if you’re open, knock them in.”
Nurse said that playing against a team that claims to have “America’s best backcourt” helped her play with a chip on a shoulder. At one point in the first half, she had scored more than Syracuse’s entire team.
Hillsman and SU did manage to find and limit Nurse in UConn’s inverted offense, limiting her to just three points in the second half. But all the damage had already been done.
“The performance, Kia’s, it just speaks for itself,” Auriemma said. “Kids dream about, I wanna have a game like that.”
Published on March 20, 2017 at 10:47 pm