To say that this season has been a constant struggle for sophomore center Kiah Stokes would be a massive understatement. Not only has she been forced to miss six games with a stress reaction in her right shin, but she continues to come up short when it comes to meeting the expectations set in place by UConn coach Geno Auriemma and the rest of the coaching staff.
At 6-foot-3, Stokes possesses the necessary build to provide an impact for the Huskies. It is her mental approach that has been her biggest shortcoming.
“I don’t know why I keep struggling,’’ Stokes said. “I talked to Coach one day and he was like, `When have you actually tried something your hardest and failed?’ And the honest answer is I haven’t. I’m not sure why. It’s just mentally. I just get the frustrated very easily and then when all the coaches get on me I kind of just break down. But I’m trying this year to stop doing that and each day I’m making strides.
“But I need to make bigger strides and faster. I’ve just got to keep working hard. Don’t take what Coach says … Don’t take how he says it. Listen to what he’s saying. He’ll say, `You missed a layup’ or whatever. And just know next time I’ve got to make a layup. It’s not like, `Oh, he’s mad at me. I’m going to sit on the sideline all practice just because I missed a layup.’ It’s more about how you react to what he says rather than how he says it.’’
This is the same problem that plagued Stokes last season, when she averaged 4.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 13.4 minutes in 36 games.
“My first year here was definitely eye-opening because I had no idea what the practices and what Connecticut basketball was about,’’ Stokes said. “But after being here a year I know what they expect, and it’s my responsibility to take my game to that next level and my intensity to the level that they’re at because I’m coming here to fit into their program. They’re not changing their program for just me. So I think that’s one thing I’ve just got to keep working on.’’
Stokes is averaging 2.0 points, 3.7 rebounds 1.6 blocks and 12.2 minutes in 12 games this season. She has demonstrated at times that she can be the strong presence in the lane that the Huskies need her to be off the bench.
Stokes had seven rebounds and three blocks against Texas A&M Nov. 18 and Wake Forest Dec. 22. She had six points, five rebounds and three blocks against Purdue Nov. 24. And she had six rebounds and three blocks against Louisville Jan. 15.
Two days after sitting out against Syracuse Jan. 19, Stokes returned to provide two rebounds and two blocks in six minutes against Duke Monday. And Auriemma was pleased with what he saw from her.
“Kiah gave us some really solid minutes in that Duke game, and she gave us some solid minutes in the Louisville game,’’ Auriemma said. “She gives us a look that we don’t have with Stefanie (Dolson) in there. And what we need is for her to keep getting better at it.’’
Stokes is not looking at her situation as a long-term plan. She is not waiting for next season to evolve into a reliable player for the Huskies.
Stokes believes that she can make an impact this season. She believes she possess the skills to make it happen. This belief, however, has consistently carried over to practice or games.
“I want to play now,’’ Stokes said. “I want to do everything now. It’s just I think one thing and they think a different thing. So once my mindset gets to what they want it’ll be a lot different. And I know what they want and I’m just trying to get there right now. But it’s so different from how I grew up. So each day I’m trying to make strides with that hustle so hopefully there won’t be any question about my work ethic or my motivation or any of that kind of thing. I know I have it in me. I’ve just got to forget about fears. I need to not have any more worries about messing up because that’s when I mess up is when I’m worried about it. And that’s the one thing that the coaches have always said. So once I put that in the back of my mind then everything else should just come with it.’’