As the Huskies’ first player off the bench, she has diversified her game after sitting out a year in accordance with transfer rules. She can protect the rim on defense, and she has evolved from a perimeter shooter to one who can score inside, playing with her back to the basket.
Stevens remains a work in progress as a junior, but her presence provided the most intriguing story line as UConn defeated Duke, 72-59, on Saturday in the semifinals of the Albany Regional. She entered the game as UConn’s third-leading scorer (15.1 points a game) and one of its leading rebounders (7.4 a game).
On Saturday, Stevens delivered 8 points, 12 rebounds, 3 blocks and 2 steals as UConn (35-0) advanced to face South Carolina, the defending national champion, on Monday in the regional final.
By Saturday, the tension had receded from 2016, when McCallie was quoted in The Chronicle, an independent Duke student newspaper, as saying: “Is that what we’re about now, ‘I’m going to take transfers’? That was the neat thing they used to have. Connecticut wasn’t a transfer school. Now, even if they win, who cares?”
She added of Auriemma: “You know why he’s doing that? Because talent is down. And he wants to continue to win.”
Auriemma responded at the time by noting that Duke had failed to reach the Final Four with McCallie as its coach, despite highly ranked recruiting classes year after year.
“Do you know how hard it is to coach at Duke?” he told The Hartford Courant. “It’s really challenging. It’s an impossible job. She’s tried so hard to get to a Final Four with all the disadvantages there. So I suggest she try a little harder and let us try to be respectable.”
At a news conference on Friday, McCallie said that she had been misquoted, her words misinterpreted. “I did not make those remarks,” she said, adding: “All I will say is, I’m very proud of Azura. What she’s done is amazing.”
The sports editor of The Chronicle, Hank Tucker, who wrote the Q. and A., said that he had recorded the interview, and that he stood by his reporting. “We transcribed what she said properly,” he said, “and I think we gave all the context we needed.”
Auriemma was subdued on Friday, saying that, in retrospect, he did not believe the biting remarks were intended to be derogatory. They had some validity, he added.
“I think she was saying it’s unusual for a team like Connecticut to have someone transfer in,” Auriemma said, “and it’s true.”
He added: “I just thought of it as that’s the changing world we live in. We’ve had kids move on to other schools, and there’s a lot of kids that move on from other schools, and this one just happened to be a really, really good player that wanted to make a change.”
He did manage one joking remark, saying he had told Stevens, “They’ve been pretty good since you left, so maybe they’re happy that you left.”
For her part, Stevens said she saw the words attributed to McCallie, but put them out of her mind. “It doesn’t faze me,” she said.
The decision to leave Duke was not easy, but there are no regrets, Stevens said. She went to UConn to be challenged by demanding expectations and to win a national championship. She has been up and down this season, but has been rewarded with the challenge of confronting areas of her game in which she was not confident or comfortable.
Crystal Dangerfield, UConn’s point guard, said Stevens “got tired of being told she wasn’t moving her feet, didn’t have her hands up, on the defensive end.” Dangerfield added, “She took that personally and she got better at it.”
At the offensive end, Stevens has become a moving target, not strong enough to outmuscle most traditional post players, but agile enough to get around them near the basket and versatile enough with her jumper to draw them outside. She had some of her most effective performances against the country’s top-ranked teams — 10 points in the fourth quarter of a home victory over Notre Dame, 16 points in 20 minutes of a narrow win at Texas.
She was also named the most outstanding player of the American Athletic Conference tournament, then delivered 26 points and 10 rebounds in 15 minutes of an 88-point rout of St. Francis of Pennsylvania in the first round of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
“Every big kid fancies themselves as the next Kevin Durant,” Auriemma said. “It’s just been a matter of trying to get her to see all the different places on the court that she can have an impact, offense and defense. Most of the work has been on her mind-set: ‘This is what I can become.’ We’ve been successful to a point, but we’re not quite there yet. When you have somebody like that, you don’t know what the next level is. You just know that you’re not there yet. There’s so much more to her.”
Chris Dailey, UConn’s associate head coach, has worked to get Stevens to block shots with the correct hand and to be less tentative when shooting beyond the 3-point arc, where, entering Saturday’s game, she was only 9 for 51 this season.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Dailey said. “We’re just trying to teach her to use what she has to her advantage, so she’s not a one-dimensional player. We need her to have a little bit of a nasty streak in order to take that next step. But she is just a joy to have in our program. She’s never going to be exactly like other big post players. But it’s important for her to use her advantages against players like that.”
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