TORONTO — Kia Nurse began her big night by loudly singing along to O Canada. She ended it by making a beeline to the dozens of adoring young female basketball players in the crowd.
On a night billed as Nurse’s homecoming game, the Canadian star scored 24 points to lift her top-ranked University of Connecticut Huskies to a 104-52 rout of Duquesne on Friday.
But the night was about so much more.
“To come here and be surrounded by so much love and so much appreciation by the best country in the world, and sing my national anthem before a game was the best part of everything,” Nurse said, with a wide grin. “I put my heart and soul into that one.
“And then the aftermath of everything, going out and seeing all the young girls, they say the sweetest things to you.”
Katie Lou Samuelson connected on eight of nine three-point attempts for 33 points to top the Huskies (10-0), one of the greatest university teams ever assembled.
But the night was meant for Nurse. UConn’s coaching staff scheduled the “home game” in honour of their senior guard from Hamilton. Her two sets of grandparents were among the capacity crowd of 2,500 at Mattamy Athletic Centre, normally home to the Ryerson Rams. It was the first time her grandparents had seen her play in the Huskies blue and white.
“That’s something that’s really special. I’m really excited to go hug them after all this,” Nurse said.
The 21-year-old, whose sizzling 54.3 percentage from three-point range leads the NCAA, scored her first basket — a three — with just under four minutes to play in the first quarter, as the MAC crowd that included Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey and family erupted.
“It was fun for the family and for everybody who remembers Kia and supported her. It was worth it,” said UConn’s head coach Geno Auriemma. ”And we played pretty well.
“I know she really appreciates it and we enjoyed doing it.”
Nurse shot 9-for-11 from the field, and 4-for-6 from long range. She added five rebounds, two assists and a steal before being subbed out to rousing applause with just over three minutes to play.
Asked about coaching the Canadian guard, Auriemma talked about how Nurse’s intense work ethic, and tendency to play all game at top speed.
“She thinks that the harder you do something, the better it will get,” the coach said. ”I said ‘We don’t wear skates.’ This is a basketball court.”
Nurse was playing on the same court where she led Canada’s women’s team to a thrilling gold medal at the 2015 Pan American Games. She was named Canada’s flag-bearer in the closing ceremonies for her performance.
She said her entire family was in attendance except for brother Darnell, who plays for the Edmonton Oilers.
“He had a game so I’m letting him off on this one,” laughed Nurse, whose cousin Sarah was named to Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team earlier Friday.
Nurse said she was genuinely moved by the young girls in attendance, many of whom hoisted hand-painted signs.
“It’s still very strange for me, at age 21, to have this platform,” she said.
The UConn women are one of the most dominant teams in NCAA sport, winning 101 of their last 102 games. All but one of their victories this season have been by 18 or more points. And three nights earlier, in UConn’s 88-64 win over Oklahoma, Auriemma became the fourth women’s coach in NCAA history to win his 1,000th game.
UConn’s staff scheduled the game last summer, unbeknownst to Nurse.
The Huskies were never challenged Friday night, sprinting out to a 25-9 first-quarter lead. They didn’t let up in the second, and a Nurse jump shot with 14 seconds left sent the Huskies into the locker-room at halftime with a whopping 54-22 lead.
They took a huge 83-42 lead into the fourth quarter.