The whispers started to intensify toward the end of last season.
Junior center Kiah Stokes, possessing a strong and long body at 6-foot-3 and the ability to be a dominating force inside for the Huskies, was again plodding through another inconsistent season. There were a number of people who believed that Stokes was sure to transfer during the off-season.
Stokes caught wind of this rumor and it did not sit well. She might have struggled. But she is far from a quitter. The talk of her transferring only served as motivation for her to do whatever it took to eliminate her inconsistencies.
“At first I was annoyed,’’ Stokes said. “I was like, `I’m not going to transfer. I don’t want to. I feel like I’m at home here. I couldn’t see myself playing anywhere else.’ But it definitely fueled me. My dad (Greg Stokes, a former Iowa star and NBA player) told me at home, `People think you’re going to transfer. Are you going to let them think that or are you actually going to do something?’ So, of course, your mentality changes when you train. And I tried to do things differently this summer than I did the previous summers. So I think it helped a lot. And I really just don’t want people to think that any more. I’m here to stay. I’m not going anywhere.’’
The rumors were enough to drive Stokes this off-season. But she also harbored the feeling that she had let her father down for the past two seasons. This was a true catalyst for change.
“Definitely, my dad’s my biggest supporter,’’ Stokes said. “He always has been and always will be. And he wants the best for me. He knows I can do it. He doesn’t get mad, but he wants the best for me. And I think when I wasn’t doing what I should’ve been doing he feels bad like he could do more. And I think that kind of hit me the most that I was disappointing him, because he knows I could do more. This year I really want to show him, `I’m here. I can do it, Dad. I can do it.
Through two games this season, Stokes has been a completely different player. There has been heart, desire, aggressiveness and dominance at both ends.
Stokes enjoyed the best game of her career in Monday’s 76-57 win over No. 3 Stanford with a national television audience looking on. She finished with 10 points (6-of-6 FTs) and career-highs of 13 rebounds six blocks in 24 minutes.
“It shows that I can do it,’’ Stokes said. “The coaches see it in me. At first I might not believe what they say, but knowing that I can do it, it definitely helps my confidence. I know I can do it. I’ve just got to do it every day.’’
With Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck on the bench with two fouls, Stokes generated eight points, eight rebounds, one assist and five blocks in the final 11:38 of the first half.
“I definitely think that with Kiah it has nothing to do with ability or anything like that with skill,’’ junior All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “But it has to do with her confidence. As long as she keeps her confidence up and continues to work hard in practice I think she’s going to do fine. She’s just got to maintain that same mindset that she had in the Stanford game that `I’m capable of blocking shots, getting rebounds and posting up hard.’ As long as she does those things I think she’s going to be great.’’
Tonight against No. 8 Maryland, Stokes faces arguably the biggest game of her career in the wake of her performance against the Cardinal. She needs to prove that she can be a consistent contributor for UConn, someone that Coach Geno Auriemma can rely on for quality minutes.
And with Mosqueda-Lewis (right elbow) out indefinitely and Tuck (right knee) out for four to six weeks, the Huskies need a steady flow of big games from Stokes.
“I have thought that about Kiah after watching some stuff and I talked to her a little about it,’’ Auriemma said. “Where’s she going from here? Is she going to add to what she did Monday night, or is she going to let that opportunity pass? And if she adds to it then obviously that changes everything for us. We’ll be able to withstand all this. But it’s a big challenge for Kiah, and I think one that had it come her freshman year, who knows maybe she wouldn’t have been ready for it. But I would think by the time you’re a junior here you should be able to handle something like this.’’
There is no question that Stokes feels better about herself right now. She is in a better place mentally. But she knows that every day, whether it is in practice or in games, it is extremely important for her to continue her path toward consistency.
“We’ve got to take it one day at a time,’’ Stokes said. “And I had one good game but you can’t be satisfied, obviously. So my focus right now is just do it at practice, be consistent and get the coaches and my teammates to trust me more.’’