Connecticut senior Moriah Jefferson led laps around the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, followed closely by sophomore Kia Nurse. Open practice meant that with each pass, the crowd cheered. With each cheer, the 5-foot-7 Jefferson cracked a grin as she shook her head, glanced back at Nurse, and sped up just enough to stay ahead of her 6-foot teammate.Coming from a small town, Glenn Heights, Texas, Jefferson’s path to the NCAA and a fourth Final Four was unique to say the least. She is one of a select few college players to be recruited while homeschooled all four years of her secondary education. Jefferson’s parents have said in past interviews that they started homeschooling and never looked back.
The nontraditional route did not stop Jefferson from playing at a high level from Day One. Out of high school, Jefferson had five National Christian Homeschool Basketball Championships under her belt. In 2011 and 2012 she won the NCHBC Sullivan Award, which was renamed in her honor when she graduated in 2012. Even still, Coach Geno Auriemma has said that she was “timid” her freshman year.
“A couple of years ago we were sitting in meetings with the players and talking to her about, you know, teams had stopped guarding her at the 3-point line daring her to shoot because she didn’t have her confidence and ability to do that,” said Rebecca Lobo, a current ESPN analyst who played on UConn’s unbeaten 1995 National Championship team under Auriemma.
“She’s really come so far.”Jefferson said she was well acclimated academically before arriving at UConn thanks to time spent at a junior college, but added that there was definitely a transition from beginning to end of her first year.
“It’s tough anywhere you go when you make a transition so it was rough my freshman year but by the end I definitely figured it,” she said.
While fellow senior Breanna Stewart has earned a lot of attention for her play the last four years, Auriemma has kept a focus on overall team effort, with each member only as good as the next, making sure each player elevates others around her.
“They make everything very team-oriented throughout the year and it’s a habit for us,” said Morgan Tuck. She said a key example is Stewart’s comments to the team after the 2015 championship game. “When she got MVP last year at the Final Four, she said she would give it to Moriah.”
Jefferson’s more understated leadership style has sometimes taken a backseat to Stewart’s more outwardly energetic personality. But no one can doubt her drive or her dedication to becoming one of the best players on her team and in the NCAA.Lobo pointed to the American Athletic Conference championship game against South Florida, when Jefferson was appointed the task of guarding Courtney Williams.
“That was leadership right there. I’m going to take it on my shoulders to prevent the best player on the other team from even touching the basketball,” she said. “While she’s become more vocal it seems throughout the course of her career, she says so much just by her style of play.
Coach Scott Rueck of Oregon State said in his press conference that great teams have no weakness. “So you just look at the numbers, and they’re at the top or near the top of almost every statistical category there is. There’s just no weakness,” he said.
Jefferson is certainly part of that greatness. She was a unanimous pick for this year’s All-Conference First Team along with Stewart and Tuck, and true to her oft-mentioned defensive efforts, earned the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year as well.
“She’s universally thought of as the No. 2 pick in the WNBA, that she’s the No. 2 player in the country, that she’s the best point guard in the country,” said Lobo.
For her part, Jefferson said she has thought about life in the WNBA but tries to focus on her last moments with her team.
“Obviously you give it some thought, especially when you see the draft and the lottery and you get all the questions about it,” she said. “But what’s most important to me right now is the here and now and I’m excited to be here with my teammates.”
Auriemma said that coming into a fourth Final Four with the senior trio of Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck, he felt nostalgia for his first appearance as head coach in 1991. But he wouldn’t have any other team around him for his ninth-straight trip.
“I don't miss the days when I didn't have Stewie, Moriah and Tuck, not at all,” he said.Jefferson said the most sentimental moment of the season came after the Elite Eight game.
“It was tough, hard-fought,” she said. “Walking off the court with these guys, it was pretty fun.”