Kiah Gillespie grew up in the shadow of the country’s most dominant women’s basketball program but commanded her own spotlight by becoming the best high school girls’ player in Connecticut.
Gillespie, a coach’s daughter, once seemed a likely candidate to play for Coach Geno Auriemma’s UConn program in Storrs, to which the gifted and talented are attracted like moths to flame.
But it’s a big country, and Auriemma typically has many far-flung stars on which to wish. So Gillespie, a 6-foot-2 forward who averaged 31 points and 16 rebounds a game as a senior at the Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford, wound up heading down the coast to Maryland.
On Thursday night, Gillespie, a sophomore, and the Terrapins have a home date against Connecticut, a clash of two unbeaten teams that puts the Huskies’ 86-game winning streak — four short of the 90-game record (Division I women’s and men’s) they reached in 2010 — on the line.
The way the Huskies’ schedule shapes up after Maryland, the Terrapins might be last in line with a serious chance to prevent a shattering of the record that even Auriemma did not believe to be achievable after Connecticut lost three players to the top three selections in last spring’s W.N.B.A. draft.
But here they are, 11-0 through a formidable schedule that included powerful programs like Baylor and Notre Dame, while Maryland, which is at 12-0 under Coach Brenda Frese, has routed most opponents and won its most challenging nonconference game at Louisville.
Even that has not brought college stardom to Gillespie, which makes this meeting less about settling an old score with Auriemma that she says does not exist and more of an opportunity to remind the many people watching back home that she did not have to settle for the Little Sisters of the Poor.
“Some teams get psyched out, get out of character against them,” Gillespie said in a telephone interview. “We just have to play to our strength, through our two seniors, and we’ll be hard to stop.”
Those two seniors are Brionna Jones, a 6-foot-3 center, and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, a 5-foot-11 guard. Together they average 34 points, while Gillespie has played 11.8 minutes per game off the bench, averaging 4.6 points and 4.2 rebounds.
With all the attention Connecticut deservedly gets, the progress of some other programs can be overlooked, as Auriemma often tells critics too eager to question the magnitude of his team’s success, 11 national titles in all.
Maryland is among those he well understands to be poised as an annual threat. Since Frese took over in College Park in 2002, the Terrapins have been to three Final Fours, winning a national title in 2006. They have 12 straight 20-win seasons, with six of 30 or more in that stretch.
Frese also recruited the nation’s No. 1-rated freshman class this season, which underscores how competitive it is to earn playing time in her program.
That is where Gillespie’s focus is these days, not on relitigating the case of Auriemma’s early interest in her, which did not result in a scholarship offer before she accepted Maryland’s.
“Things got a little foggy and we decided to both move on,” she said, adding that Auriemma “ended up getting some great recruits, including the No. 1 player in the country.”
That was Katie Lou Samuelson, currently the Huskies’ leading scorer at 20.6 points a game, out of Huntington Beach, Calif.
The only current in-state Husky is Tierney Lawlor, a 5-foot-7 senior walk-on from Ansonia who seldom plays. In fact, the only Connecticut-bred player to crack Auriemma’s notoriously short rotation this century was Maria Conlon of Derby, Conn., who played from 2000 to 2004.
More recently, Heather Buck, a 6-foot-3 forward from Stonington, Conn., who graduated in 2013, played sparingly off the bench after signing on as a two-time Connecticut Player of the Year, as was Gillespie.
Gillespie grew up in Meriden, just under an hour’s drive from Storrs. Her father, Levy, is the boys’ coach at Capital Prep, where her older brother, also named Levy, played before moving on to Post University in Waterbury, Conn.
Her mother, Martina, helped coach her A.A.U. team, so her involvement with basketball, Gillespie said, was more family-related than UConn-inspired.
“I was just more of a basketball fan,” she said, though she expressed admiration for the Husky great Diana Taurasi, whom she said was “as tough a player as there’s been.”
Tammy Millsaps, who coached Gillespie at Capital Prep, said in a telephone interview that she had often been asked why Auriemma did not offer a scholarship. She has a stock answer.
“Who am I to question a guy with 11 national championships?” she said. “It’s irrelevant to me because Kiah had a ton of offers and she’s playing with some awesome talent at Maryland.”
“She’s just starting to realize what she has to do to stay on the floor — play defense, be ready to take the open shot, not question herself,” Millsaps said, adding, “You know, it’s not always easy for someone who was used to being a dominant player to fit in with all those other all-Americans.”
Maybe that is what inevitably answers the UConn question — the realization that Auriemma, from his mountaintop, gets to project and choose which alpha players can best harness their egos and assimilate into his my-way system.
Gillespie, Millsaps said, has plenty of time to make a lasting impression on the sport, and even on Auriemma — perhaps as early as Thursday night.
Millsaps is planning a gathering with her Capital Prep team to watch the game on television. If nothing else, it will be a reminder for her players that there is an expanding world of women’s basketball opportunity outside Connecticut, and not just for Auriemma’s recruiting purposes.
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