HARTFORD, Conn. - Azura Stevens didn't play for the UConn women's basketball team last season, but that didn't stop her name from being brought up time and time again or the fact that the former transfer from Duke left for the WNBA with a season of eligibility left when talking Huskies basketball.
When UConn started a true freshman to begin the season, Stevens' came to mind. When the team struggled with size, Stevens' 6-foot-6 frame was missed. When production off the bench was lacking, fans reminisced on what she used to offer the Huskies.
Stevens' decision to leave for the WNBA was a shock to fans and coaches alike. Many wonder if Stevens would have helped lead the Huskies to a national title this year, but a year later the decision is something Dallas Wings' forward stands by.
"I feel great about my decision," Stevens said this week ahead of a preseason game. "I think it was the best decision I could have made. There are some things I might have done differently in terms of how to handle it, but I wouldn't have changed my decision looking back. I'm really grateful for my time at UConn, but I've really enjoyed being a pro and look forward to many more years in this league."
Steven's choice to enter the WNBA draft was right for her, in her opinion, but it left UConn in an unexpected position. The Huskies and coach Geno Auriemma planned to have her for one more season, leaving them with only one starting spot to fill and a giving them a team more capable of defending bigger teams in the league.
Stevens had proven to be a good fit for UConn in her first season with the team, averaging 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 20.9 minutes with a team-high 76 blocks off the bench. When she left alongside Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, a good chunk of UConn's production and defense disappeared. Suddenly, the Huskies were left with a mostly inexperienced team and a depth problem.
"Azura left early which, OK, you can't fault the kid, but we made too many plans that involved her and never considered her leaving," Auriemma said when discussing UConn's effort to rebuild its depth earlier in the month.
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Despite Stevens' departure, the Huskies would once again make it to the Final Four, falling to Notre Dame in the national semifinal game. Stevens, who still feels strongly tied to the program and her former teammates, watched all of UConn's big games. She cheered on Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, who are about to embark on their first WNBA season, and was thrilled with the records the duo were able to set in their final season.
"It was really cool to see them flourish as seniors and really prepare themselves for this next level," Stevens said. "I think a lot of people where kind of shocked by Phee and the way she played, but honestly it's not a surprise to me. She's been doing that since I first heard of her back in USA (basketball) so it was really cool just to see her get records and something she deserves."
While Samuelson and Collier were preparing for their senior season last summer, Stevens was playing her rookie season in the WNBA. She averaged 20.6 minutes, 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds for the Wings, but never felt fully comfortable. The transition from college to the WNBA proved to be a lot and, like most rookies, her head was spinning for awhile.
With her rookie season out of the way, Stevens is confident she'll be able to up her game this season. She knows what's expected of her, the pace she needs to play at and the role she has to fill.
"It was good. It was overwhelming, honestly," Stevens said of her rookie season. "There were just a lot of new things coming at you pretty much all year so you're just learning how to adjust. I'm hoping to improve in all areas of my game, and I think just play a little more calm and in control now that I know what to expect. I think I was just trying to get it all in one possession last year, but I think this year I'll have a different level of ease and comfort with myself."
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