UConn grads (all of them) bringing a standard of excellence to the WNBA

Phoenix Mercury star Diana Taurasi, one of 15 former UConn players currently on WNBA rosters, celebrates after becoming the first player in WNBA history to surpass 10,000 career points during an Aug. 3 game gainst the Atlanta Dream in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Matt York)

Mohegan — There’s a standard, former UConn great Diana Taurasi was saying last week.

It’s a standard to which UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma holds every player in his program and a level of preparation which happens to translate to the professional level.

There were 15 former Huskies who made opening day rosters in the WNBA, with representation on eight of the league’s 12 teams. Recently, current UConn players Aaliyah Edwards, Paige Bueckers, Caroline Ducharme, Nika Muhl and Ines Bettencourt piled into Mohegan Sun Arena to watch former teammate Evina Westbrook, in town as a member of the visiting Los Angeles Sparks (ex-Husky center Azura Stevens also plays for the Sparks).

Los Angeles is back to play the Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena on Tuesday at 7 p.m.

The Connecticut Sun roster includes 2012 UConn grad Tiffany Hayes and 2022 grad Olivia Nelson-Ododa.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the best player coming out of high school, if you’re a walk-on; he holds everyone to that standard,” Taurasi said Thursday prior to the Sun’s game against Taurasi’s Phoenix Mercury at Mohegan Sun.

“I think you see that. No matter who goes there, they find a way to play in the pros and not only play but affect winning and that’s what (Auriemma) always says. It’s not about numbers. It’s not about MVPs and All-Stars. Are you affecting the game where your team is better?

“I mean, you go down the line and there’s Huskies everywhere making an impact. … It’s been really fun to watch.”

And so the former UConn players have filed through Mohegan Sun this season, taking the court against Connecticut. And not just the luminaries like Taurasi, who recently became the first player in WNBA history to reach the 10,000-point plateau, or former MVP Breanna Stewart of the New York Liberty.

Dorka Juhasz, a rookie for the Minnesota Lynx, for instance, was a second-round draft pick, but has started 24 games for the Lynx.

In the middle of a race to qualify for the playoffs, Juhasz had 12 points, 16 rebounds, six assists, a steal and a block in the team’s 91-85 overtime victory Friday night over the Atlanta Dream. Napheesa Collier, a 2019 UConn graduate, had 27 points for the Lynx, who clinched that elusive playoff bid on Sunday night when both Collier and Juhasz posted double-doubles.

Minnesota head coach Cheryl Reeve, also head coach of the U.S. women’s basketball team, said during the team’s back-to-back games in Connecticut earlier this season that she admired Juhasz’s confidence.

“The separator for a lot of players that make the league and don’t make the league is knowing that you belong and having that belief in yourself,” Reeve said. “’I belong.’ I don’t think Dorka’s ever doubted that she belonged on our team or doing what she’s doing in games.”

UConn’s other rookie in the WNBA this season is Lou Lopez Senechal of the Dallas Wings. A first team All-Big East pick at UConn, where she was a graduate transfer from Fairfield, Lopez Senechal was chosen as the fifth pick in the 2023 draft but has yet to make her debut following knee surgery.

Then there is Westbrook, nicknamed “Mama E” during her time in Storrs. Westbrook was drafted by the Seattle Storm in the second round in 2022 but has since played for Minnesota, Washington, Phoenix and Los Angeles.

Westbrook originally signed a seven-day contract with the Sparks on July 31 and inked two-more short-term contracts before being signed to a rest-of-season hardship contract by the team on Aug. 21.

Westbrook is used sparingly, but that’s not all that matters, Sparks head coach Curt Miller said during his team’s visit to Mohegan.

“Evina’s been a terrific teammate, first and foremost,” said Miller, the former Sun head coach. “You know from me and covering me that culture’s a big thing. You win in the locker room. She’s fit seamlessly with the players and they enjoy her. She also brings us a toughness from the guard position that we were desiring.”

“I think that compliment from coach means a lot to me,” Westbrook said, asked how she’s been able to bounce so often from team to team and continue to be resilient physically and mentally.

“It’s definitely tough. It does play with your mental a little bit. But I think that one thing that I have never wavered from is the work I’ve put into the gym. I just knew I belonged in the league, so I was just like, ‘You know, you just have to get on the right team at the right time.’ So far here, I’ve loved it.”

UConn has claimed six WNBA Rookies of the Year with Taurasi (2004), Tina Charles (2010), Maya Moore (2011), Stewart (2016), Collier (2019) and Crystal Dangerfield (2020).

Sun head coach Stephanie White, who has been in the WNBA as a player, coach and assistant coach, said there’s a few explanations for the success of UConn graduates in the league, including Auriemma’s pro-style read-and-react offense.

Another is the expectation of winning that UConn, which has won an unprecedented 11 national championships, brings.

Lastly, she said, the UConn players are used to being coached, to being challenged and held accountable.

“All of those things matter when it comes to the next level,” White said. “And not just because everybody’s bigger, faster, stronger, but you’re going to go through phases.

“Not everybody’s the Maya Moores and the Diana Taurasis and the Sue Birds and the Breanna Stewarts. You get players who are gonna get knocked down and then have the resilience to get back up and to keep plugging away and to keep getting better and growing, all of those things are learned within the culture of what UConn women’s basketball is.”

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