Kyla Irwin thought she worked hard on the basketball court, thought she was giving everything she had.
Even though she was blessed with a strong 6-foot-2 body and loads of basketball talent, she still made an effort to outwork her opponents.
It turns out, when she stepped into Gampel Pavilion on the University of Connecticut campus, she was wrong.
“I thought I had always been an extremely hard worker,” the State College product said. “I always tried to do my best, but here it’s just completely different — the work, the execution, how hard you have to go 24/7. It’s really a lot harder than you expected, and I was expecting it to be really tough.”
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There is a reason the UConn women’s program has been the most dominant force in college basketball for the last quarter century. To put it simply, the Huskies were better both physically and mentally than anyone they faced.
That’s how the program won 11 national championships over that time, including the last four titles before this year, and ran off a record 111 straight victories.
It was because of that domination that made their 66-64 loss to Mississippi State last Friday in the national semifinals even more shocking. The Huskies trailed for much of the game and saw their season and win streak end on Morgan William’s overtime buzzer-beater.
“I was just shocked,” Irwin said. “If that wasn’t right at the buzzer, if there was time left, we definitely would have got the shot off and won the game. I had confidence we could play in those tight moments.”
The former Lady Little Lion had dreamed of playing for the UConn program since she was in the fourth grade and hung a team poster on her bedroom wall. By the time her high school playing career was done, she had school records of 2,032 points and 1,188 rebounds.
Despite those numbers, including averaging 26.5 points and 12.2 rebounds per game as a senior, she knew getting on the court with the Huskies wouldn’t be easy.
She got into 31 of the team’s 37 games, averaging 2.2 points and 1.3 rebounds per game and adding 14 assists, 10 steals and six 3-pointers.
She said she would have liked more playing time, but she knew what she was getting into and didn’t have any expectations for how much time she would get this season.
If she did have high expectations, they would have disappered at the end of May when she enrolled in summer classes and had her first team workouts.
“It definitely opened up my eyes and showed me I can work a lot harder than I have been,” Irwin said. “Everyone needs to work as hard as they possibly can in order to get to the end goal.”
Her preparations got more difficult a few weeks later when she broke her hand, keeping her out of commission for about six weeks. She said the team was “goofing off” with a volleyball in the locker room when a teammate hit her hand, breaking a metacarpal bone of her pinky on her right (shooting) hand. Even today, the injury still bothers her a little.
With huge losses to graduation after last season, there wasn’t as much outside pressure on the team to start the year, but as each win passed, the pressure mounted. But it also meant the team had a small psychological advantage each game, both from their talent and also from their work ethic. Irwin said even when they trailed early in some games, they knew they had the stamina.
“Every time other teams run, we sprint,” Irwin said. “It was that mentality of, ‘We practice this hard because we know other teams can’t last with us.’”
With her talents and stats, she could have played basketball pretty much anywhere, and likely would have seen more playing time and better stats. But she has no second thoughts about her decision. She is learning — re-learning, she said — the game of basketball and about herself, and plans to work even harder this offseason.
“Not every day is the exact same, and there were definite lows,” Irwin said. “But the overall year, looking back, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”