Dan Hughes announced his retirement as coach of the San Antonio Stars before the 2016 WNBA season.
But there were moments during the season when he reconsidered his decision, mostly based on one player — former UConn guard Moriah Jefferson, who averaged 13.9 points and 4.2 assists as a rookie with San Antonio.
"She gave me reasons to rethink that because she was that much fun," said Hughes, who worked as a color commentator on the Syracuse-UConn broadcast for ESPN2 Monday night. "I was just amazed by her. Not only the player, the talent, but the way she adapted so quickly. The conversations I would have with her reminded me of a much older player."
Hughes, who coached in the WNBA for 16 seasons, was astounded by Jefferson's maturity. The Stars (7-27) had the worst record in the league as the young team dealt with injuries.
But Jefferson emerged as a leader and her offensive output increased after leading scorer Kayla McBride went down with a season-ending foot injury.
"It was a pleasure to coach her," Hughes said. "As difficult as the year was in terms of being young and injured and not winning as much as we had been used to, it honestly is a year I will remember very fondly and a lot of it had to do with her."
Hughes said Jefferson displayed many of the same traits he sees in other former UConn players (Jennifer Rizzotti, Paige Sauer and Kalana Greene).
"Every player I ever coached from Connecticut knew how to practice," Hughes said. "Moriah, no different. They always knew how to practice and they knew how to be a teammate. Without question, all those young ladies were excellent at both of those things."
The Stars drafted Jefferson with the second pick in the draft, after the Seattle Storm picked Breanna Stewart. The team received trade offers for the pick, but Hughes said he never had any intention of dealing the pick because he had thoroughly scouted Jefferson during UConn's title run last season.
She proved to be everything he expected and more.
"She gives you energy," Hughes said. "And not every player gives the coach energy. … She was just so impressive as a person. The mentality and the communication ability, knowing how to take my thoughts to the team or how to come back at me in the right kind of way, I just had never seen in a young player like that."
Monday night's 94-64 victory over Syracuse marked senior Saniya Chong's final game at Gampel Pavilion.
"It is very bittersweet," Chong said. "I am just happy with the group of girls this year that we have. Yeah, it's pretty sad, my final game here. It is so sad, but I am going to enjoy it."
Coach Geno Auriemma recently said he spoke to Chong at the American Athletic Conference Tournament at Mohegan Sun and tried to impress upon her that she is perhaps UConn's most important postseason player. If teams win titles with guard play, Chong's performance could go a long way to helping UConn secure another title.
Chong, who struggled to earn playing time for three seasons, appreciates how her career is ending. She was scoreless, but had seven assists in the win over Syracuse.
"It makes me feel really excited," Chong said. "I'm just really happy because I know that the past three years hasn't been what I expected. So coming out this senior year, I worked really hard each and every day in practice to just get better so the coaches can trust me. It makes me feel happy to hear that, that [Auriemma] trusts me and he wants me on the floor."
Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman spoke with optimism about his program's future, although he didn't accept the idea that he was leaving Storrs viewing the glass as half full. "I'm extremely disappointed," he said. "We came in to win the basketball game. So the glass is empty. ... We didn't expect to be going home right now." ... The announced attendance was 8,274, with 2,750 free tickets distributed to students. ... UConn had 34 assists against Albany Saturday and 30 against Syracuse Monday. ... Auriemma has 111 NCAA Tournament wins, one behind Pat Summitt for the all-time lead. ... UConn is 86-7 in the NCAA Tournament since 2000. The program has 111 tournament victories, trailing only Tennessee (123). ... Before Saturday, UConn did not have a game with three players scoring 20 or more points. The Huskies have now done it in consecutive games as Kia Nurse (29), Gabby Williams (23) and Katie Lou Samuelson (23) scored over 20 Monday.