UConn Women: Chong Latest To Stumble A Bit As A Freshman

UConn's Saniya Chong is well aware she needs to push through a freshman slump and pick her game back up. (Brad Horrigan)

STORRS – Success isn't the only characteristic that self-perpetuates within the UConn program. Freshman angst also has carved a nice niche.

Every year brings one or two examples of how the stress of a long season tends to frazzle those who have never experienced one.

Last year, Moriah Jefferson and Breanna Stewart had thorny moments. This year, both are blooming into potential All-Americans as sophomores.

Perhaps the same will be true next year about Saniya Chong.

"I don't know that any freshman is immune to it," coach Geno Auriemma said. "I think it does get to them all. It's a lot harder than anything they have ever done. But with the great competitors, [the malaise] doesn't last very long.

"One of the things about Saniya is that she wants to be a great competitor. She wants to do all the things [to be great]. That's good, that's going to help her. But for her, especially, if she's not concentrating all the time then [the progress] goes away. … She's not there yet."

Chong's evolution continues Tuesday when No. 1 UConn (23-0, 10-0) plays SMU for the first time at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies have won 29 in a row over two seasons.

The Mustangs (14-7, 5-5) have won three straight and feature The American's leading scorer, senior guard Keena Mays (20.1).

During the first 10 games this season there was no greater revelation in the nation's freshman class than Chong, the high school All-American guard from Ossining, N.Y.

With Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck out with injuries, Chong quickly accelerated, playing more than 20 minutes regularly, scoring 16 points against Penn State and another 15 against Boston University.

And she had just eight turnovers in her first 200 minutes.

In some ways, her performance mimicked Stewart's first 10 games when she set a program record for points with 169. But almost on cue, when Mosqueda-Lewis and Tuck returned at Duke on Dec. 17, Chong's impact began to recede.

She played five minutes at Duke, three minutes at Baylor and missed the South Florida game entirely after telling Auriemma, from the bench, she was too sick to substitute.

And when she scored 12 points on Saturday at Cincinnati, shooting 4-for-6 from three, it was her first double-digit scoring game since Dec. 5.

"I can do a lot more," Chong said Saturday. "I am getting adjusted. I'm just going to keep going and see what happens."

Auriemma and his staff did not allow Chong to come to the conclusion independently. After she played 17 minutes at Temple last week without a shot or a point he complimented her in highly unusual fashion.

"I don't think Saniya has gotten a lot better, which I had hoped she would. I think she's hit a plateau a bit, which is kind of natural [for a freshman]," Auriemma said that night. "Just goes to show you how bad she was playing, that I'd be happy about how she played [at Temple].

"She didn't take a shot and didn't score. But she looked more involved. For someone as talented as she is offensively, she gets a bit overwhelmed with how hard you need to go every day and how hard you have to play every game."

Chong said she had heard similar things in private from Auriemma.

"He basically said the same to me, but I know what he's trying to say is that I shouldn't think of myself as a freshman anymore," Chong said. "We've been playing for so many months now that I should know what I am doing. I just need to step up.

"He's totally right. I've been slow, not doing much to contribute. I've heard it so many times that I need to [get going]. I'm working hard at it in practice to come out in games to do it all."

Without Tuck, out for the remainder of the season, UConn's bench consists only of Chong and juniors Kiah Stokes and Brianna Banks. At times this season, Auriemma has pressed all three for more consistency and production.

"I tell them all the time it's not like we need them to play 40 minutes or score 20 points," Auriemma said. "We just need to them to be productive, do something, whatever it might be to put your name on the stat sheet."