NEW ORLEANS — In a sport filled with tall, toned athletes, Connecticut’s Kelly Faris appears almost waiflike even though, at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, she’s hardly so.
In a program that turns out All-Americans like Dunkin’ turns out donuts, Faris has never gotten past second-team All-Big East.
In her senior year, Faris is fourth on her team in scoring and fourth in rebounding. But without Faris, it’s highly unlikely that the Huskies would be playing for a record-tying eighth women’s basketball national championship Tuesday night against Louisville.
“What Kelly does on the court motivates and inspires the rest of us,” said freshman forward Breanna Stewart, who had 29 points in the Huskies’ 83-65 semifinal victory Sunday against Notre Dame. “Sometimes you think she’s going to kill herself out there running around, guarding people, trying to get rebounds and scoring. If you’re not on her team, you might not appreciate it, but she’s always in the middle of things.”
To coach Geno Auriemma, no player has ever better represented the heart and soul of the Huskies than Faris.
“Normally when you talk about players that have had great, great careers at Connecticut, you can identify them by something that was great, a great skill they had,” he said. “But Kelly will never be introduced as ‘Kelly Faris; she was a great passer.’ Or ‘She was a great shooter.’ Or ‘She was a great ball handler.’
“Kelly is one of the best we’ve had because she was great at making sure we were in position to win every night. So will she leave as one of my favorite players? Absolutely.”
Faris certainly added to her legacy Sunday.
With UConn trailing for most of the first 17 minutes, Faris contributed a steal and layup, a blocked shot, an assist on a 3-pointer by Stewart and finally a layup at the buzzer to complete a 14-3 run that put her team up 39-29 at halftime.
And then, when Notre Dame had gotten UConn’s lead down to six points with six minutes left, Faris had three straight offensive rebounds, leading to a free throw plus a jumper by Stewart off Faris’ assist, in a sequence that broke the Irish’s momentum for good.
“The last four minutes of the half is when you can set the tone — either this is going to be the way it is for the rest of the game or maybe give the other team a feeling it’s still in it,” said Faris, who finished with 10 points, six rebounds, six assists, three steals, two blocked shots and one turnover. “The rebounds were just being in the right spot at the right time.
“When you’re in a situation like that, you’ve got to act likes it’s the last possession of the game and you’re going to win it right there.”
If Faris sounds like a basketball junkie, she is. And she comes by it naturally.
She’s from Plainfield, Ind., the heart of Hoosier Country, and her father runs an AAU program. At Heritage Christian High, Faris led her team to four straight statechampionships.
“If somebody asked, ‘Where is Kelly Faris from? Miami Beach?’ No, she’s not,” Auriemma said. “She’s from Indiana. She looks like a kid from a basketball-crazy state who just loves to play basketball for the love of the game.”
That’s why Faris came to UConn, even though it meant she might not be the star she was in high school.
“If you’re not already a team player when you come here, you’re going to learn to be one,” she said. “It’s difficult, but you’re honored to have been chosen to be part of this. There’s a standard of excellence here with a certain kind of people unlike any otherprogram,” she said. “We’re supposed to be in this final game every single year.”
The Huskies were in 2010 — Faris’ freshman year — when they beat Stanford for title No. 7. But they lost in the semifinals to Notre Dame in 2011 and ’12 before turning the tables Sunday.
Now, though, UConn stands on the cusp of history.
“There’s a rare thing here because all of the great players from the past come back for the Final Four,” she said. “They’re the ones who put the program on the map, so you’re grateful for the opportunity to add to this.
“I’ve had great memories with this group of players and this coaching staff. Ten years down the road, we’re going to be able to look back and say, ‘Wow! Just think what weaccomplished.’ ”