OSSINING, N.Y. -- The time is now for Ossining’s Saniya Chong, and she knows it. If the senior guard is going to have an impact on the court for the three-time defending national champions at the University of Connecticut, this is her final chance to do it.
“I think my first three years could have been better,’’ Chong said. “Last year I had an injury, and I’ve been struggling overall. My three years have not been what I wanted. This year I’m doing what I need to do. I don’t get this year back. I’m just going to give it my all.”
Early returns show Chong is poised to have a sensational sendoff. She scored 16 points, all of them in the second half, for the third-ranked Huskies in Monday’s 78-76 win over No. 12 Florida State. She also dished out six assists without a turnover, made all six of her field goal attempts and made critical plays on both ends of the court in the final minutes. UConn plays its home opener Thursday in Storrs, Conn. against No. 2 Baylor.
“It felt exciting to be out there with the game on the line,’’ Chong said. “I knew my team needed me out there. I had a lot of fun.”
Fun seemed to be missing from the first three years during her career at UConn. She showed glimpses of the skills that made her one of the country’s most coveted players coming out of Ossining. But she struggled to find consistency, especially with her jump shot. She came into the season averaging 4.7 points per game in 16 minutes of playing time. She was shooting 35 percent on 3-pointers, and last year, averaged a career-low in minutes (12.4) and points per game (3.7).
Chong was hampered by an IT band injury for most of the season last year, and started just three games for the star-studded Huskies. “It was really frustrating,’’ Chong said. “One day I would be perfectly fine, and and the next day I couldn’t walk. I didn’t have any lateral movement. I had everybody working with me, the coaches, the trainers, teammates. This whole summer we worked a lot on that.”
With the graduation of Brenna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck -- the top three picks in the WNBA Draft -- Chong figures more prominently in UConn’s plans this season. She is one of three seniors on the roster, and she also appears stronger physically than she has in the past. In two preseason games and against Florida State, Chong has been in the starting lineup.
Saniya could also benefit from an up-tempo style for the Huskies, who lost a lot of size and now have to play with a much smaller lineup.
“Size or no size, we just have to come together and work with what we have,’’ Chong said. “We have a new team. We just have to figure it out and do things a different way.”
That’s easier said than done at UConn, where expectations run high. The Huskies play one of the most demanding non-league schedules in the nation, and Monday’s win extended their winning streak to 76 games. “We’re not thinking about the streak,’’ Chong said. “We go out there to play our best and take it from there.”
Chong averaged 34.4 points in her final season at Ossining, where she led the Pride to their first New York State Public Schools state championship. She was named the 2012-13 Parade Girls Basketball Player of the Year, and the National High School Coaches Association’s Player of the Year.
Chong quickly found out, however, that the difference between high school basketball and the top women’s team in the country is a huge gap. “Everything was an adjustment in college,’’ Chong said. “One thing I’ve really worked hard on is coming off of ball screens. I think I was afraid. I wasn’t looking to shoot, wasn’t being aggressive. This year I’m being a lot more aggressive.”
With a young team, inexperience and a brutal schedule, Chong’s performance will go a long way toward determining whether UConn can win its fifth straight national championship. She’s playing with a lot more confidence, is injury free and is willing to do whatever she can to help her team chase its goal.
“My team needs me to play with confidence,’’ Chong said. “I want it, my team needs it. And I want to be there for them.”