Speedy Moriah Jefferson leads UConn as a sophomore

February 4, 2014 - 6:54pm
Five-seven point guard Moriah Jefferson has used her speed, athleticism and commitment to hard work to turn herself into the floor leaders of the No. 1 team in the country. (Photo by Steven Slade/UConn Athletics)

Five-seven point guard Moriah Jefferson has used her speed, athleticism and commitment to hard work to turn herself into the floor leaders of the No. 1 team in the country. (Photo by Steven Slade/UConn Athletics)

NORTH HAVEN, CONN. -- Moriah Jefferson speeds down court. The many quick steps per dribble gives a jitterbug impression as she approaches the top of the key. She is obviously the fastest player on the court. But when she sees a tiny seam between defenders, one quickly realizes how little of the 5-7 point guard's true quickness they were aware of. Jefferson kicks in another gear, slicing through much taller defenders who seem to be moving in slow motion and rocketing to the hoop to drop in the lay-up.

Those who were aware of Jefferson during her high school career playing in the Texas Home Educators Sports Association -- Jefferson was home-schooled -- are not surprised by either  her quickness or  her scoring ability. She tallied 3,354 points in high school, averaging nearly 150 steals and 200 assists per year. She so dominated the Nation Christian Homeschool Championships in 2011 and 2012, that the Sullivan (MVP) Award was renamed the Moriah Jefferson Award when she graduated.

All those accomplishments and all that physical talent, however, did not prepare her to take over as field-general of the UConn offense in her freshman year. She often played tentatively and seemed practically silent on the court.

But after playing poorly for just five minutes in the Big East Tournament Final loss to Notre Dame, something clicked for Jefferson. Given ample playing time (23 min./game) in the first four NCAA contests, she scored 38 points, had nine assists to four turnovers, and 10 steals to her credit. She became a catalyst at the point as UConn hustled to four dominating wins, and ultimately went on to take their ninth national championship.

Those late-season accomplishments began a self-guided retooling of her mental approach to the game for Jefferson. After contributing to a gold medal with the United States U-19 team in the spring, Jefferson returned home to Texas committed to becoming the point guard UConn would need to repeat as national champions. Jefferson could not break down each aspect of the process that transformed her, in large part because she saw her own "over-thinking" of her game as a contributor to her previous tentative approach. For most of her freshman season, said Jefferson, “I was just overthinking everything, and I wasn’t quite sure just exactly where I fit in and [the tentative play] was just thinking too much.”  In contrast, during the NCAA tournament, “I think I turned up my defense; that’s what happened. And for me, it starts on the defensive end. When I get out in the lane and get after passes, everything else comes with that.” So when Jefferson headed home to Texas for the summer, she just took to the gym and did what she had to do to get better, without analyzing it.

Tennis great Pete Sampras once was asked how he hit the signature running forehand that won him so many match points. His answer, “ You see the ball, then you hit it.” Asked what she did back in Texas to become the floor leader of the nation’s best team this season, Jefferson’s answer was similarly unenlightening: “[A]fter the season ended and the summer came I just locked myself in the gym and I got my confidence and it carried over into the preseason.”

It certainly did carry over into the preseason, and now the season. Jefferson's confidence is obvious. She is much more vocal on the court. She is willing to direct the offense as a point guard must do.

Coach Geno Auriemma is thrilled with her progress, and unstinting with his praise. But he knows, just as Jefferson knows, that it is too soon to label her the next great UConn point guard. Auriemma told players like Jennifer Rizzotti, Sue Bird and Renee Montgomery that “every mistake we make on the court is your fault.” (He never had to say that to Diana Taurasi, who already believed it). Asked after Connecticut's 94-64 rout of Rutgers -- a game in which Jefferson posted 13 points on six-of-eight shooting while handing out eight assists to her fellow Huskies -- whether he had told Moriah Jefferson that everything that went wrong was her fault, the coach rolled his eyes. “No. That’s going to be a long time from now. She’s . . . We’ve had some pretty good point guards here, and she’s got a long way to go to catch up to them. Maybe if she makes a half-court shot, or makes a game-winning shot, or if she ends up with two hundred and some assists at the end of the year. But she’s got a long way to go.”

That does not mean, however, that Auriemma is displeased with Jefferson’s efforts. Far from it. “She has become, defensively, where it all starts for us,” declared the Hall-of-Famer who values defense above all else. “She is putting a lot of pressure on the ball, she is making it tough for people to go where they want to go and do what they want to do."

“I’ve seen the last month or so, Moriah get really involved defensively -- be more aggressive, take more chances, try to do more things,” Auriemma continued. “Usually when you are that athletic and you do that, good things happen more times than not. She is getting her hands on a lot of passes, she is getting her hands on a lot of loose balls ... ."

Her teammates are similarly impressed by Jefferson’s defensive tenacity. “The fact that Mo really gets up into them, it frazzles people,” fellow sophomore Brianna Stewart, who had her own epiphanny during last year's tournament, says. “She’s like a little pest. I mean that’s what she is –- if she was defending me, that’s what I’d think.” Stewart also credits Jefferson with being the catalyst for the shot-blocking machine UConn has become. “I think that the fact that Moriah really gets up into them, it gets them a little bit out of control,” Stewart explained, “And then they’re coming into the basket and just throwing up a shot. That allows us a chance to block it.”

Jefferson’s nearly three steals per game (2.8) ranks second in the American Conference and 16th among all players in Division I. Against Memphis, in late January, she swiped nine, one short of a UConn record, but did not notice during the game,. “Honestly, I didn’t even know I had that many steals until after the game when they told me,” she laughed afterwards. “And I was, ‘What? If you’d have told me, I’d have tried to get one or two more.’”

Jefferson also has been a key part of the nation’s leading offense, averaging 10 points per game with her quickness and athleticism, while dishing out a conference-best 5.3 assists per game. Her 3.4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio also leads the American Athletic Conference, and ranks third in NCAA Division I.

The truly remarkable offensive statistic, however, is Jefferson’s amazing shot selection. On January 19, she led the conference in field-goal percentage at .568; since then, Jefferson's shooting percentage has improved to 57 percent, though she has been edged out by 6-1 Rutgers' guard Kahleah Copper (.580), also a sophomore, for first-place in the conference standings. Still, a 5-7 sophomore guard, shooting a higher percentage than any post player, while averaging double-digit scoring (10.0 ppg) may be a first for a major conference. Of course, many of Jefferson’s points come from her remarkable defense. She often steals the ball at the top of the key, and nobody is going to beat her to the hoop when she has a step on them.

Jefferson's worth to the team goes well beyond the statistics, however. Her versatile ball-handling flummoxes opposing teams and allows her all-American teammates to excel. “She can take the ball anywhere on the court that she wants to take it, and that’s a huge advantage for any guard,” Auriemma explained. “There’s a couple of kids you play against and the scouting report says, ‘Force her left,’ or ‘Force her right,’ or ‘Force her away from where they want to go.’ So, Moriah, if you get to the point where you can go where you want to go, you can go right, you can go left, you can go quick, you can slow down. Now you become really difficult to play against, and that’s kind of where she is right now. She’s really difficult to play against.”

Great players are always a work in progress, and Jefferson is still in the middle of that work. Her outside shooting has been improving, but is still ordinary – just .311 from beyond the arc – and she knows it. Her three-point accuracy in high school was much better, though she does not know the statistical particulars. Her role then was very different then, she explained with a smile: “The difference was, for me in high school – I took all the shots basically.” To some extent, that had to do with obtaining a rhythm, something she cannot always do on a team with an abundance of great outside shooters.

But Jefferson has had some success from outside, notably against Baylor, where two early threes forced a crucial defensive adjustment. She will try to shoot more when left open. “I think I have to just line them up and just take my shots. So I’ve been just trying to do a little more of that in other games,” Jefferson told Full Court.

Her speed and accuracy around the hoop is hard enough to defend now. If that outside shot drops regularly, she will be all but un-guardable.

Moriah Jefferson is well on her way to being a great player, and she is already one of the best point guards in the country, the defensive spark of her team. She is playing at a high level, with great confidence, yet there is still room for improvement. Jefferson gets that, just as she now gets how to be a premiere point guard. “I don’t think anybody can come out and play amazing every single game, but I think that’s what you have to strive for. And if not, you’re just looking to be average, and that’s not how I want to be.”

There is nothing average about this young star. She is making steady progress towards becoming the next UConn guard who Auriemma can blame for every mistake on the court.

Editor's Note: Click here for Jim Clark's full interview with Moriah Jefferson.