KML turns around season in tourney

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- What was a star-crossed season for UConn junior forward Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis turned into a starring role in the NCAA tournament.

"There are always themes that run through a season," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I really think that K's season represented what this [one] was all about."

Mosqueda-Lewis suffered a nerve contusion in her right (shooting) elbow on Nov. 11 against Stanford and missed eight games. Then came an injury to her left elbow on Feb. 9, which frustrated but didn't sideline her. But mononucleosis followed, and that kept her out another four games.

However, as March Madness approached, Auriemma told Mosqueda-Lewis that as difficult as the season had been, there was a path to happiness remaining.

"We talked about it before the NCAA tournament started," Auriemma said. "I said, 'If we're fortunate enough to play six games, these could wipe out how frustrating the other four months were.'

"That's exactly what happened. She was unbelievable the entire tournament."

Tuesday, Mosqueda-Lewis had 18 points and seven rebounds in the Huskies' 79-58 NCAA title-game victory against Notre Dame. This was a matchup of two No. 1 seeds who were undefeated, but it didn't really look like a meeting of equals.

Admittedly, it's impossible not to wonder how different the game might have been if Notre Dame senior center Natalie Achonwa (ACL injury) had been able to play. But even with her, the Irish would have had a very difficult time slowing the Huskies, who pounded Notre Dame inside.

UConn finished with a 54-31 rebounding edge, and one of those boards kind of summed up the night for the Huskies and Mosqueda-Lewis. Notre Dame had cut the UConn lead to five with 27 seconds left in the first half, and hoped to keep the margin there going into the break.

UConn's Stefanie Dolson missed a jump shot with 5 seconds left, but Mosqueda-Lewis got the rebound and putback. It was only two more points, but it showed how brutal it was to have to play the Huskies. You make their center shoot from the outside ... she doesn't make it ... and yet you still give up a basket.

Mosqueda-Lewis, who was the most outstanding player of the Lincoln Regional, averaged 17.0 points and 8.3 rebounds in the Huskies' six NCAA tournament games. The clouds parted and it was mostly blue skies during the most critical part of the season for KML.

"Winning the national championship and playing an intricate role, being a part of it definitely wipes out whatever happened before," Mosqueda-Lewis said. "It's a great way to end my season, especially the way it started out."

Certainly, there were times these last few months when she really worried that she was losing ground as a player.

"I wanted to help my team so much," she said. "Especially coming off a season like last year, you know, when I kind of saw what I was capable of. And when you come back and you just can't do the same things, and you're not really producing the way that you want, you just feel like, 'I'm really letting the team down right now.'"

UConn assistant coach Shea Ralph, who fought through serious injuries in her time as a Huskies player, understood the confidence-sapping demons that were preying on Mosqueda-Lewis much of this season.

"And she has the battle of trying to be in shape; I don't think that's any secret that it's been an obstacle for her," Ralph said. "I think one of the things that makes her great is that, on the court, you can't read her and you don't get under her skin.

"But there is a sensitive side to her. And like any player, there are those things that you are insecure about will bubble to the top when you are struggling. However, I think it's made her a better player, and it's why you're seeing what you are seeing right now."

Ralph also thought that Auriemma, known so much as the court-jester critic who inspires players with sarcasm and witty barbs, was able to help Mosqueda-Lewis with a genuine compliment.

"In the end," Ralph said, "I think it came down to Coach just saying to her, 'When you go out there, there isn't anything you can't do. So don't doubt yourself.'

"I don't know if she just needed to hear that from him, but I feel like it was that one conversation he had with her that turned things around."