It was a day filled with many emotions for UConn junior Tiffany Hayes Monday.
Hayes, along with teammates Caroline Doty and Kelly Faris, was on hand at ESPN studios to celebrate the first step of Maya Moore’s career as a professional. She was taken No. 1 in the WNBA draft by the Minnesota Lynx as expected. It also undeniably signified the end of her career at UConn.
The vision of Moore posing for pictures with league Chief of Basketball Operations and Player Relations Renee Brown further helped Hayes come to the realization that Moore will not be on the court during postseason workouts or next season as the Huskies take aim at a fifth straight trip to the Final Four.
Moore’s departure has also provided UConn with an added sense of urgency heading into the off-season. They now know that the success of the team is in their hands.
“The road to going back to the Final Four is going to have to start soon,’’ Hayes said. “So we’ve just been talking about the workouts and how they’re going to be and when they’re going to be. We’ve kind of started already. We’re going to work 10 times as hard as we did last year because we know last year’s workouts weren’t enough. So we’ve definitely got to come back harder this year.’’
Not only were the Huskies denied a chance to claim an NCAA record-tying third straight national championship by a 72-63 loss to Notre Dame in the national semifinals April 3, the Huskies failed to send Moore out with another championship ring as they desperately wanted. It is the first time since 2008 that UConn heads into the off-season with unfinished business.
That season came to an end with an 82-73 loss to Stanford in the national semifinals. There again was plenty of urgency on behalf of the Huskies to right their mistakes as postseason workouts began shortly after the loss.
“I think, in some ways, the worst thing that could’ve happened would be if we had won again and then that group have to come in next year… It would be very difficult to convince them of all the changes that they have to make,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “And I think this is a lot easier now. They see it. They saw it for themselves. They saw where they came up short individually and us as a team. Any time you don’t play well, any time you lose, you can’t wait to get back and play. The only problem is when you lose in the Final Four it takes you 12 months to get back there. And a lot can happen in those 12 months and there’s a lot of question marks. And I think each player that we have on our team has some question marks.’’
The Huskies will return four starters next season – Hayes, Faris, Bria Hartley and Stefanie Dolson – that accounted for 57.6 percent of the scoring, 49.8 percent of the rebounding and 61.3 percent of the assists for a team that finished 36-2.
Doty is poised to make a full recovery from an injury to her left knee that cost her the entire season. She was taking part in drills at full speed at the Final Four in Indianapolis, which bodes well for her off-season regimen.
The prized freshman class of 6-foot wing Kaleena Mosqueda, 6-3 post player Kiah Stokes and 5-9 guard Brianna Banks is also expected to make an immediate impact. All three newcomers earned All-America status this season. Mosqueda-Lewis was named the Naismith High School Player of the Year.
“I do think the program is in good hands,’’ Moore said. “The type of people Coach Auriemma recruits, people that are invested, that care and want to compete. When you have those three things and talented players as well, I feel like the way we ended the season this last year will give us motivation and hopefully carry the girls through to be even better individually and as a team for next year.’’
A critical part of the off-season will be for the Huskies to come to grips with the fact that they will no longer be able to rely on Moore to carry them in times of need. They waited for her to rescue them against Notre Dame and their unwillingness to make plays on their own led to their demise.
Auriemma met with the players last week. They discussed individual goals that needed to be reached. As players reach these goals, the Huskies will then be line to reach their goals as a team.
“What they have to work on now is instead of one person it’s got to be a collective thing where five, six, seven, eight players or whatever it is have to collectively be really good,’’ Auriemma said. “Everybody’s going to get better. That’s what kids do during the summer. They get better. But coming back next season, they’re going to look around and realize that during the month of October, November and maybe even during December that there’s no Maya there to bail them out. And I think in the end that’ll make them better players.’’