INDIANAPOLIS — The confetti had barely fallen to the floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse when UConn’s returning players began fielding questions about how they could possibly compete for a fifth consecutive national championship next season without All-Americans Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck.
Tuck announced Wednesday that she would forgo an extra year of eligibility and join her classmates in the WNBA draft next week. She could have used a redshirt year to try for a fifth title after missing most of her sophomore season with a knee injury.
Freshman Katie Lou Samuelson said the team has heard the critics say that without the three seniors, the gap will close between UConn — which beat teams by nearly 40 points a game — and programs such as Baylor, Notre Dame and South Carolina.
She said they’ll use that as motivation.
“We kind of want to prove to everyone that we can still do it, and I think all us are going to be ready when that time comes,” she said.
Kia Nurse said UConn has a system for training the next generation of team leaders. The sophomore, who starred on the Canadian Pan American team that beat Stewart, Jefferson and the United States last summer, noted that she has been studying “The Big Three” for two seasons.
While the seniors pulled out a sword to knight each other on stage after Tuesday night’s victory, they have no official baton to pass.
“For them to come in, each and every day, take us under their wing and to show us the way with their actions is the best that we can get,” Nurse said.
However, coach Geno Auriemma said his players are in for a “rude awakening” next fall when practice starts.
“We don’t have anybody in the program right now that’s a Stewie or a Tuck or Moriah coming back,” he said. “So it’s going to be really, really, one of the more difficult adjustments that we’ve had in the time that I’ve been there. But it’s OK. I’m kind of looking forward to it.”
The Huskies have a lot of players coming back. They include starters Nurse and Samuelson, reserve guards Saniya Chong and Courtney Ekmark; and forwards Gabby Williams, Nepheesa Collier and Natalie Butler inside.
UConn, as it usually does, also will bring in top-ranked recruits. Crystal Dangerfield, a 5-foot-6 guard from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is viewed as an eventually replacement for Jefferson.
Kyla Irwin a 6-2 forward from Lemont, Pennsylvania, is another inside-outside threat, in the mold of Stewart and Tuck. They also signed a highly touted combination guard in Molly Bent from Massachusetts.
Stewart said she’s looking forward to watching from afar and is confident the Huskies will have no problem extending their record 75-game winning streak and challenging for a 12th national championship.
“I don’t think UConn ever has a rebuilding year,” she said. “I don’t think we rebuild. I think we just reload.”