STORRS - Kia Nurse missed her first career game with a right ankle injury when the UConn women’s basketball team visited Tulane a year ago. So in retrospect maybe it shouldn’t have been a complete surprise the Huskies were fortunate to get out of New Orleans with a three-point win.
Nurse was ready for the Green Wave when they came to Gampel Pavilion Saturday. And as it’s been for most of her time here, UConn was a better team with her than without her.
The difference, though, has never been so pronounced.
The senior guard made her mark in many ways, scoring 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting from the floor, adding a career-high matching seven rebounds with four assists to no turnovers, and leading a defensive effort that locked up Tulane star Kolby Morgan as No. 1 UConn routed the Green Wave 98-45 in American Athletic Conference action at sold-out Gampel Pavilion.
“That’s the key to everything Kia does,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “She makes an impact. She has an impact defensively, she has an impact spreading the floor for us offensively with the way she’s shooting the ball. I’m reluctant to take her out unless we have to.
“I thought she was really good last year but she’s been great this year.”
The Canadian star has put herself into the All-American conversations.
Nurse leads the Huskies in minutes played at 32.3 and is averaging career highs of 15.1 points and 3.5 rebounds. Her shooting percentages from the floor (57.1) and 3-point range (nation’s best 50.5) have never been better. She’s also averaging 2.9 assists per game with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3.
Then there are numbers on the defensive end that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Her latest lockdown came at the expense of Tulane senior guard Kolby Morgan, who came in scoring 21.3 points per game but managed two Saturday on 1-for-10 shooting.
“We’re having fun, and that’s something we’re getting better at each and every day,” Nurse said. “For me, there are a lot of things that I want to get better at but my teammates are helping me out and making sure that I’m successful in ways that are easy for me.
“It’s a matter of being a consistent shooter and knocking down open shots when I get them, but also being able to finish a couple and-ones here and there.”
Even when Morgan got her lone basket on a drive to the hoop early in the third quarter, Nurse responded by hitting a 3-pointer on the next possession.
Her best play, at least the one that drew a roar from the student section, was her block of a Kayla Manuirirangi jump shot. She then got to the loose ball first and raced in for a layup that gave the Huskies a 56-point lead going to the fourth quarter.
There was no let-up until she took a seat on the UConn bench with 7:16 to go.
“Providing energy is something I’ve been able to do for a long time,” Nurse said. “That’s something that is just an effort thing that you can bring every single day. For me, that all stems from defense. If I work to my strengths on defense it usually helps translate into offense.”
Another part of Nurse’s senior success is the sophomore surge by teammate Crystal Dangerfield, who won the point guard spot during the offseason and has no intention of giving it up for a couple more years.
Dangerfield has taken a big share of the ballhandling duties and has freed Nurse to play what is more her natural position - at least at UConn - off the ball.
“When you’re able to get experience under your belt with games and practices, you can kind of build chemistry,” Nurse said. “For me, Crystal does a lot of things on the court that take pressure off me. I’m in positions now where the shots are probably easier to where I can probably even make some of them with my eyes closed. When you have someone like Crystal who has as much quickness, as much intelligence, and as much ability to get the ball where it needs to go on time and on target, it always helps.”
Of course, Nurse got to spend her first two seasons playing alongside two-time Nancy Lieberman Award winner Moriah Jefferson.
“Crystal’s development is only going to continue to go up,” Nurse said. “With Mo, I came in and she was already developed. She was kind of the go-to and she took me under her wing. With Crystal, it’s the opposite or flipped. But they’re both fun to play with.”
The last time UConn faced Tulane on Feb. 18, 2017, it escaped Devlin Fieldhouse with a 63-60 win. On Saturday, the Huskies led by as many as 62.
“Tulane was great when we played them at their place last year,” UConn’s Katie Lou Samuelson said. “This year we wanted to make a statement.”
The statement could have been in two parts: The Huskies had Nurse, and Tulane didn’t have a chance.