Saniya Chong did not play at all in the second half at No. 8 Maryland Friday. She missed both of the shots she took. She committed one turnover. She looked very much like a freshman in the 10 minutes that she was on the court in her first road game against a quality opponent.
Sunday provided Chong with another chance to grow, another opportunity to prove herself when the No. 1 Huskies faced No. 13 Penn State at the Bryce Jordan Center. And this was an opportunity she did not miss.
Chong looked nothing like a player appearing in the fourth game of her career. She was confident in her ability. She was aggressive. She was a catalyst for the Huskies, finishing with season-highs of 16 points, six rebounds and 27 minutes in a 71-52 win.
“I just need to play my game, basically,’’ Chong said. “Maryland I didn’t do as much as I wanted to. But coming in here and knowing that Coach told me to be aggressive … So coming into this game I just had the mindset of just doing everything right and just pushing the ball and just playing my game.
“I think that coming off the bench I would say I had little bit of confidence. I know the role I play for my team. So I just had to go out there and create for my team and just know what I’m out there for.’’
It marked the second time in three games against a ranked opponent that Chong made a difference for UConn. Against No. 3 Stanford last Monday she came off the bench with 12:56 left in the first half and made two 3-pointers in a span of 53 seconds.
The game was tied 10-10 Sunday when Chong struck again. She scored five straight points – a 3-pointer and a layup – in a span of 36 seconds to fuel a 20-4 run.
“I think she’s been playing great,’’ UConn senior Bria Hartley said. “One thing she has when she comes on the court is she has great instincts and she’s aggressive. So when she’s aggressive like that she can make plays. And we all know she can knock in shots so if she keeps doing this consistently she’s going to be really good.’’
Chong had 12 of her 13 first-half points during the run against the Lady Lions, including two 3-pointers. And she capped the run by embarrassing a Penn State defender with a vicious move on a drive to the basket for a layup.
“You think Moriah Jefferson is fast,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “That was a blur going to the basket on that one drive. And she doesn’t hesitate. And whenever she does I constantly encourage her to be more aggressive. And when you’re like that if you play a bad game it doesn’t bother you.’’
Chong is averaging 7.5 points, 2.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists in 19.3 minutes this season. She is shooting 52.6 percent from the field (38.5 percent 3-pointers) and has committed just two turnovers in 77 minutes.
The expectations that accompany one’s spot on the UConn roster can be overwhelming. You are supposed to play well every time you step on the floor. You are supposed to win every game by a wide margin. You are supposed to, in the least, advance to the Final Four every season.
None of this has fazed Chong. Simply put, she gets it.
“If she didn’t get it she wouldn’t have been able to do what she did (Sunday) or what she did against Stanford,’’ Auriemma said. “She’s a really, really good basketball player and she’s a good player because she has talent … Some players have talent and they have no instincts. She’s has great talent, but her instincts help that talent come out even more. So we have a pretty good player on our hands and I just want her to keep getting better. She had a lot of (guts) to make that 3 from the wing. The same thing in the Stanford game. And she’s a pretty bright.’’
Chong seems to be very comfortable in her surroundings. She said that she does not consider herself to be a freshman. And her play often times has resembled that of an upperclassman.
“I just see myself as another player on this team,’’ Chong said. “It doesn’t matter what grade you’re in. We’re all just one family and we all contribute. We all just play.’’