NEW YORK — For the first two years of her career, Morgan Tuck’s attention was focused on regaining her health.
Knee surgery and inactivity created what appeared to be a daunting, frustrating obstacle to becoming the quality player she hoped to become at Connecticut.
“I wouldn’t call it lost time because I do believe everything happens for a reason,” Tuck said. “I’d rather say that sitting out as much as I did actually helped me. It was very hard, but looking back on it, it’s clear how it all turned into something positive.”
After the Huskies defeated St. John’s on Sunday at Madison Square Garden, it seemed clear the focus — and conversation — had shifted dramatically about a player so important to the program’s chase of a 10th national championship.
Tuck led the No. 2 Huskies with 23 points against St. John’s and is second on the team in scoring (14.3 points per game) for the season. She also hauls in 4.9 rebounds and dishes out 2.9 assists per contest.
“And it’s what I expected,” said guard Moriah Jefferson of Tuck’s season. “I knew when she was finally able to get rid of all the injuries she would play like this.”
With a brace to protect her knee, and the confidence to reinforce her spirit, Tuck has emerged not only as one of UConn’s best players but a certain American Athletic Conference all-star — and possible WBCA All-American.
“Morgan is making up for a lot of lost time,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’ve talked so much about how there are so many things that she does well. She’s the kind of player, when on the floor with someone like Breanna Stewart, that it’s more like having four players than two. They shoot the ball, handle it, pass it and can cover up things.
“Nobody remembers Morgan from two years ago. But I don’t know anyone in the [AAC], up to this point, has had, from what I have seen, a better year than Morgan is having right now.”
On Sunday, Tuck scored 11 consecutive points in the beginning of the second half to help fuel a run that turned UConn’s 40-31 lead into a 51-33 advantage. And she did it all within 2:20, scoring her first eight points on layups and capping it with her fifth three-pointer of the season.
— UConn coach Auriemma
“She’s a great player,” St. John’s coach Joe Tartamella said. “It was clear from watching her play that she was able to make adjustments. We did a better job curtailing her in the first half, but [Auriemma] made adjustments that enabled her to make counters on plays in the post. Her confidence has improved and her outside shot … she does all the little things that you love.
“She has obviously improved and she is a big piece to what they do.”
In addition to her team-high 23 points, she added six rebounds, four assists and two steals to her line in UConn’s 70-54 win. It was the third time this season she’d either led or shared the team-high in scoring, highlighted by her career-high 25 points at Notre Dame on Dec. 6.
Tuck’s story is familiar by now. Fighting through a left knee injury, the consensus high school All-American and USA Basketball standout Tuck played 35 games as a freshman, averaging 6.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 15.8 minutes.
But last season Tuck was forced to succumb to discomfort. After scoring 11 points in 18 minutes against Stanford in the second game of the season, Tuck had arthroscopic surgery and missed five weeks. She returned at Duke on Dec. 17 and played in six games, her final one coming almost a year ago against Houston when she scored 19 points and was 8 of 10 from the field.
Tuck’s season was then shut down and surgery was performed on her right knee in hopes of finally arresting the pain and problem for good.
After coming off the bench in the first two games this season, Tuck and freshman Kia Nurse were inserted as starters after the Nov. 17 loss at Stanford, in time for UConn’s home opener against Creighton on Nov. 23. The Huskies have since won 11 in a row.
Auriemma said the best of Tuck is still to come and Tuck agrees.
“I wasn’t playing the way I wanted to in the last couple of years, but now I am starting to,” Tuck said. “[Coach] sees me every day in practice and if he believes there’s more [improvement] there then I believe him.”
Tuck said playing on a team with All-Americans Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Stewart, and another percolating in Jefferson, has helped her develop her own set of credentials.
“That’s why I really wanted to play for UConn,” Tuck said. “The best players come to Connecticut and it forces you to step up or just be along for the ride. When you go to play at a place where everyone is just as good or better than you are, it makes you work a little bit harder.
“I know it would be nice to be referred to at some point as one of the best players to play for UConn, but it’s also not something I think about. I’m just trying to make sure I am doing what the coaches ask because it’s their opinion of me, and how my teammates feel about me, that matters the most.”
Tuck has scored in double figures in all but one of UConn’s 13 games. She has 38 assists, proof in her ability to help replicate the playmaking that distinguished Stefanie Dolson’s All-American career in the post. She also has 30 offensive rebounds, second only to center Kiah Stokes on the team.