SPORTS

Nurse shook off nerves to help UConn win in front of her own cheering section

04/08/2015 03:08 EDT | Updated 06/08/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The nerves of playing for a women's NCAA basketball title had got the best of UConn rookie Kia Nurse.

The 19-year-old from Hamilton found herself struggling in front of a loud crowd of around 20,000 fans, including a huge travelling group from Connecticut and her famous uncle Donovan McNabb.

"But everybody on the floor at that moment just said 'You've got this, you're fine. Relax and do what you've been doing all year,'" Nurse said from the Huskies team bus Wednesday morning en route to the airport. "When you can see that trust and that confidence from players like Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson, it's an incredible feeling."

It was Nurse's defining moment of UConn's 63-53 over Notre Dame in the NCAA women's basketball championship game Tuesday in Tampa, Fla. Hours later, she struggled to describe it.

"The atmosphere was so incredible, to see that on TV and then to get to be a part of it, it's hard to put words to it," Nurse said.

The six-foot guard finished with nine points in front of her personal cheering section that included McNabb and her dad Richard Nurse, a former receiver with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. McNabb tweeted to his 59,000 Twitter followers: "Good luck to the @UConnHuskies tonight. Can't wait to watch #11 Kia Nurse, (my niece) ball out."

Post-game, the former NFL star quarterback posted celebratory pictures with Nurse and other Huskies players.

McNabb is married to Richard's sister Raquel — they met as student-athletes Syracuse. Nurse's mom Cathy played basketball at McMaster. Her brother Darnell was a key member of Canada's hockey team that won gold at this year's world junior championships. The defenceman with the OHL's Sault Ste-Marie Greyhounds was drafted seventh overall by the Edmonton Oilers in 2013.

Nurse feels fortunate to have grown up immersed in an atmosphere of success.

"It's just like any other family, there's a lot competitiveness that comes out," she said. "We did a lot of playing on the street, either hockey or basketball. When you have people who are playing sports around you and people who have done it before you, when they shared all the stories that they had, and you saw the success that they were having, it just pushed me to want to be like them," Nurse said. "You see that the sky's the limit for any of them, it inspires you and lets you know that you can do anything, nothing can stop you."

Nurse was recruited by countless U.S. colleges after leading Hamilton's St. Thomas More Knights to three consecutive Ontario high school titles. She eventually chose Connecticut over Penn State and Indiana, but never imagined she'd end up starting in 36 of 39 games in her rookie season.

"If you looked at our roster, and the calibre of players we have here, I figured I was going to sit back and take a little bit of a supporting role, and kind of just soak in everything that I could," Nurse said. "But when they inserted me into the starting lineup, then my role kind of grew from there. . . it was just a matter of becoming comfortable in it.

"And I've learned something new every single day, and it's not only from the coaches, but it's from the players," she added. "They're really good at just taking me aside and just helping me with the little things, and I think the coaches do a great job of putting emphasis on the things that have to be done to where they become habit."

Nurse will take a week off, then get back to the weight room in preparation for a summer spent with Canada's national women's team. Canada will play in the Pan American Games on July 10-26 in Toronto, and then the FIBA Americas Olympic women's qualifying tournament in Edmonton, Aug. 9-16.

"I think it's definitely going to be amazing," Nurse said of the Pan Am Games. "I've heard all the stories of the places they've had to go for Pan Ams before, so as soon as they announced it was in Toronto, our older veterans all went a little crazy at that moment. Playing on home soil is a big deal for us, and chance to show the rest of the country how much Canada basketball on the women's side has progressed."

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