TAMPA -- While top-ranked Connecticut prepares to battle for a third consecutive national title on Tuesday night, the occasion marks a renaissance for one Huskies starter.
Redshirt sophomore forward Morgan Tuck rode the bench this time last year, nursing a surgically repaired right knee while watching her teammates claim their second consecutive NCAA title and ninth overall.
Being supportive and chief cheerleader worked all right at the time, but Tuck relishes her lineup spot these days. Not being able to play in UConn’s 79-58 victory against Notre Dame in the 2014 title game makes Tuesday’s championship rematch with the No. 2 Irish at Amalie Arena so much sweeter.“I think it’s helped me this year a lot just because it’s made me not take it for granted, because I couldn’t participate last year,” Tuck said.
The 6-foot-2 forward from Bolingbrook, Illinois has started 36 consecutive games this season, coming off the bench only for the Huskies first two games in November. She’s averaging 14.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 25.1 minutes per game on a team that rides it starters.
And what a cast that surrounds her -- a first-team All-American in fellow forward Breanna Stewart and second-team All-Americans in forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and guard Moriah Jefferson. Despite all that firepower, Tuck ranks fourth nationally in field goal percentage (60.6) and earned honorable mention All-American honors only 15 months after surgeons repaired a fairly serious condition in her right knee.
The return to elite status has begun.
Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw, who didn’t have to scheme for Turk’s presence last March, calls her “their second-best player,” especially after Tuck logged a team-high 25 points in a 76-58 victory over the Irish -- only her fifth game back as a starter -- on Dec. 6.
UConn head coach Geno Auriemma, who declares “that there can’t be 10 players in the country better than Morgan Tuck,” also understands the pickle faced by All-American selectors.
“Whenever people say, ‘well, Tuck should have made All-American,’ my response is, ‘OK, which one of those ten kids would you take off?’” Auriemma said. “They all deserved it, too. I think right now what Morgan is showing is that ‘I'm not Stewy, I'm not Kaleena, I'm not Moriah Jefferson. But there are things that I do that nobody else on my team can do.’
“And that to me is the beauty of Morgan. She doesn't try to be anybody but herself.”
What Tuck does do is ignore her enormous acclaim as a two-time high school basketball player of the year in Illinois and focus on her versatility among equally talented teammates. She adapts to any spot in the front court, taking scoring and defensive heat off Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart, yet pouring in her own points.
“Because she can go inside and out,” McGraw said. “She's really worked on her perimeter game. She's tough to defend around the basket. But you've got to guard her at the three-point line.
But they have so many weapons, you want to try to find somebody that you don't have to guard, and she would be the wrong choice if you decided not to guard her.”
Fifteen months ago, Tuck was guarding her healing right knee. Having undergone ACL surgery on her left knee in high school, she knew trouble lurked when her other knee turned sore and balky during her freshman season at UConn. Discomfort persisted last season, worsening to the point Turk played in only eight games.
In January 2014, after consultation with physicians, coaches and family, she opted for microfracture surgery, a procedure that forces bone to grow new cartilage to replace damaged tissue.
“We kind of decided, ‘let’s kind of nip it in the bud now,’” Tuck said. “Get the redshirt year so I’ll have the extra year and come back hard. The in and out, it was really hard not knowing if I was going to be able to play. Play one day, sit out two days. Or play two days, sit out another day -- too inconsistent. Especially your first couple of years, consistency is pretty key to being successful.”
She’s not alone in this procedure. Among others in the sporting world, Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the top pick in the 2014 NFL draft, had microfracture surgery on his right knee in December. Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict had it on his left knee in January. The Dallas Mavericks’ Amar’e Stoudemire is another who has had the surgery.
It’s not a slam-dunk procedure, but Tuck accepted its risks.
“The doctors gave me a lot of confidence that it was something I could come back from and that I could still play at a high level,” she said.
First there was the agony of rehab, which required six weeks of non-weight-bearing motion, which meant being wedded to crutches. Enter one of UConn’s critical contributors off the bench and a critical crutch holder off the court.
“That was horrible,” Tuck said. “One of my teammates, [sophomore guard] Saniya Chong, was like my personal helper on our trips. I think that was the worst by far because it was in the winter and going to class, I was on crutches for six straight weeks. But it got better after that.”
And it’s really good now as Tuck prepares to factor, perhaps, in a third consecutive UConn championship.
“It was really frustrating and it was hard to stay positive,” she said, contrasting her present healthy situation to a year ago. “Looking back on it, it was worth it. You get to the point when it’s like, ‘am I really not meant to play or is my knee ever going to feel back to normal?’ Maybe I was being a little dramatic, but it’s good to be back.”