Transfers Stevens, Camara embracing UConn’s postseason run
STORRS — The smiling faces of Batouly Camara and Azurá Stevens could be found in the celebration photos taken a year ago when the UConn women’s basketball team captured the American Athletic Conference regular season and tournament championships.
They shared in the joy of their teammates’ success but they were dealing with a complex set of emotions. With Camara transferring in from Kentucky and Stevens coming on board after two brilliant seasons at Duke, they had to sit out the 2016-17 season per NCAA rules.
It’s safe to say that the duo relished the Huskies’ impressive run to a fifth straight AAC tournament title on Tuesday in addition to another undefeated regular season.
Stevens, who was named the AAC’s Sixth Player of the Year and Newcomer of the Year, added some more hardware when she was selected as the Most Outstanding Player in the 2018 AAC Tournament after contributing 49 points, 29 rebounds and nine blocked shots in the three wins. Camara quietly added seven rebounds, two assists, a steal and blocked shot in the two tournament games she appeared in.
“I think changing my mindset is one thing; when you’re practicing alongside Lou (Katie Lou Samuelson), Pheesa (Collier), Gabby (Williams), Kia (Nurse), you have to change your mindset or you kind of get kicked to the side,” Stevens said. “I definitely am grateful for being around them, being able to be challenged by them as well as the coaches. Just embracing more of a down-low game is an area where I’ve grown both offensively and defensively.”
When Stevens arrived at UConn, the coaches worked with her on not settling for perimeter jumpers and getting out of her comfort zone on defense to block or alter shots and corral rebounds.
“I’m affecting the game more and it’s realizing that affecting and impacting the game doesn’t always mean scoring,” Stevens said. “You can be a really effective player and not score any points, so I’m trying to have that mindset, especially coming off the bench being a spark, whether it’s rebounding or altering shots. I was getting in a lot of foul trouble trying to block everything, but now I’m realizing I’m 6-6, I don’t need to try to block everything; just putting my hands up and being there will alter some shots.”
Eight UConn players have pulled down at least 100 offensive rebounds in a season, and two of them (Collier and Williams) are on this year’s team. Their presence alone has forced Stevens to become a more aggressive rebounder.
“There are times when it’s us against each other, sometimes other teams don’t even go after rebounds,” Stevens said. “There were some plays when my hand would smack Gabby in the face because we were both going for the ball. I think that’s really important. We have to keep that energy on the boards with some big games coming up in the postseason.”
Stevens had a double-double in her third game at UConn but playing time and production have been harder to come by for Camara. Her development was slowed by a knee injury that forced her to miss the first seven games of the season, so she’s had to display even more patience than the typical transfer.
“It’s completely different watching versus playing, you’re focused right now, everybody has to be so focused and lasered in,” Camara said. “It’s such a transition for the postseason.”
A big moment for Camara came when she shed the knee brace she had been wearing late in the regular season. It was a symbolic gesture as it signaled that she was ready to put that injury in the rear-view mirror.
“I had it on two or three weeks longer than I had to; taking off that knee brace is shifting that mentality and that was a good transition,” Camara said.
Another key moment was when she watched Crystal Dangerfield and Williams limp off the court during the quarterfinal win over Tulane. It drove home how little margin for error there is even for a UConn team that has been the unanimous No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll every week this season.
“They (UConn’s starters) work so hard and do all the work, we just have to be able to contribute and kind of add to what they’ve done,” Camara said. “We want to go out there and try to make them proud, earn their respect because they know we’re working as hard as we can.”
Their UConn teammates understand it is no easy task to leave one program and fit into another one like UConn, which already had some established stars before their arrival.
“As a player you know it is hard when you have to sit out a game, and to sit out a whole year like they did. They really embraced that and helped us get better as a team last year being on the White (second) team and just making practices harder for us,” Samuelson said. “Now that they’re actually contributing in games for us, you can feel how dedicated they are and how much this actually means to them, coming from a different program and trying to fit in here. They’ve tried to put their full effort into this.”
On Monday, UConn figures to be the No. 1 overall seed for the 13th time. Camara will have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Kentucky lost to Washington in the Sweet 16 in 2016, while Stevens’ last tournament appearance came in the 2015 Sweet 16 when Duke lost to Maryland.
Stevens could make herself eligible for next month’s WNBA draft. There is a strong sense within the UConn program that she will return next season, but recently she said she hasn’t made any decision yet.
“I haven’t really put a lot of thought into it so I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Stevens said. “I never came into the season saying I was going to leave or I was going to stay, so I’m kind of focused on the present and enjoying what we have here right now.”
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