UConn walk-ons describe what it's like to walk on with a dynasty
INDIANAPOLIS — Briana "Polly" Pulido was about five minutes into her first walk-on workout with Connecticut assistant women's basketball coach Shea Ralph in the fall of 2013 when she had a thought she couldn't shake
What the hell did I get myself into?
It's a question she still battles, she says, though not as much anymore. As one of two walk-ons for the Huskies, who go for an unprecedented four-peat tonight in the women's national title game, Pulido knew what she had gotten herself into, and why. It's cliché, but true, she says, that she wanted to be part of something special.
As a high school basketball player and track athlete at Gulliver Preparatory in Miami, Florida, Pulido heard from her family and friends about, "[Diana] Taurasi this, and Taurasi that," she says. The UConn women, who won three national titles in Taurasi's tenure (2000 to '04) dominated conversations about high quality basketball in the Pulido house, and when she decided on a college, Pulido chose one 1,200 miles away. "I figured," she says, "they have the best team in the nation there, so I can watch all their games in person."
Coming out of high school, she would have preferred to pick a school based on where she could play basketball, but not many programs need a 5'7" guard with average skills. She was better at track anyway, and arrived at UConn on a partial scholarship for hurdles and jumps, planning to compete in the pentathlon eventually. But when a Connecticut classmate Tweeted a message encouraging serious, aspiring walk-ons to contact the women's basketball staff, Pulido took note.
Ralph, who's been an assistant under UConn coach Geno Auriemma since the 2008–09 season, was considered one of hardest workers and toughest players in women's college basketball when she led the Huskies to the 2000 title. So she has an appreciation and understanding of the grit it takes to succeed if you're not the best athlete in the building. But, she says, "I have an appreciation for wanting to be part of something awesome.
"A lot of times you have to be handpicked for that in women's basketball," Ralph says. "So to be given that opportunity, I appreciate the fact that they even had the guts to try it."
It's fitting, Pulido thinks, that the same player who kick-started her college career also helped Pulido prove she could survive at Division-I: Breanna Stewart, arguably the greatest player in the history of women's college hoops. Or, as Pulido likes to call her "the other Breanna."
Pulido survived individual workouts with Ralph and then received Auriemma's approval to come on as a reserve during her sophomore year in 2013–14. In a preseason pickup game that fall, Pulido had her I know I can do this moment when she blocked a layup attempt by Stewart.
Morgan Tuck, UConn's All-America junior forward, laughs when remembering it. "Everyone was really excited for her," Tuck says. "Obviously Stewie is Stewie, so to block her shot is pretty amazing." (Stewart, for her part, was surprised to learn that someone 5'7" could jump like that.)
Says Pulido: "I think she was in disbelief."
"You have to be able to hold your own in pickup," Ralph says. "No one's saying you have to score 40, but you have to be able to compete. They did that."
Pulido knew she wouldn't get much (or any) playing time, even with most UConn games decided by halftime. A walk-on's role at Connecticut is mostly to be an energizer, whether that means cheering teammates on from the sideline in practice, or playing defense three hours straight while Auriemma installs the game plan. That didn't matter to Pulido. During track, she had been in the training room when women's hoops players walked in whispering inside jokes, and hung out with other athletes who raved about the Huskies' unparalleled teamwork and excellence.
In UConn's blowout national semifinal win over Oregon State Sunday night, Pulido and fellow former walk-on Tierney Lawlor subbed in with one minute to go, and got a roar from the crowd and the bench when they pulled their warmup shirts over their heads. "It surprises you every time," Pulido says.
And for Lawlor, a small-town Connecticut girl who grew up going to Huskies games, it's still surreal.
An Ansonia, Conn., native—located about 75 miles from Storrs—Lawlor went to UConn originally to study engineering before switching to animal science in order to pursue a career in farming. An All-State high school player at Ansonia High who averaged 12.2 points and 8.8 rebounds her final two years, Lawlor grew up attending games in Storrs and Hartford. Like most little girls in the state, she shot hoops in her driveway while pretending to score the game-winning basketball for the Huskies. She saw the same tweet Pulido did, and within days was on her way to talk with Ralph.
"You're in the arena, then in the office, walking by all the trophies and suddenly you're talking to a former All-American and she's like, 'Are you ready?' and you're thinking, 'Who knows?'" Lawlor says. "I had no idea what I was doing."
Like Pulido, Lawlor went through a series of individual workouts with Ralph before joining the team for pickup games. Both former walk-ons (they were each awarded scholarships at the conclusion of the 2014–15 season) recognize the absurdity of a roster comprised of McDonald's All-Americans and two girls who couldn't even get D-II offers coming out of high school. Two years later, they have two NCAA rings and will likely earn their third Tuesday night.
"The crazy thing is, I rebound for the best player in the country every day. How cool is that?" says Lawlor, who's balanced an internship at the UConn school farm with practice, coordinating her basketball schedule around picking up night shifts where she milks cows. She and Pulido have never felt insignificant, they say, even though their contribution pales in comparison to players like Stewart and Tuck from a statistical standpoint.
"What do they bring from a basketball standpoint? Nothing that you could say 'Wow,'" Auriemma says. "But ... they bring a sense of perspective to everything. Initially they did it for nothing other than they love to be a part of the team.
"It allows me to tell one of my players that's on scholarship that's not playing hard or not playing well that maybe I'm giving a scholarship to the wrong person. [Tierney] gets up at 4 every morning. She's got stuff to do. Polly has to miss some road trips because she's trying to get into medical school. So I have no time for any of our players that don't go to class. It's a great example that they set."
That they will live dramatically different post-UConn careers matters little to Lawlor or Pulido. Stewart is poised to be selected the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft on April 14; Lawlor hopes to get to her full-time farming life, and Pulido to medical school. But they'll always share a bond of playing for one of the most dominant college programs of all time.
"Polly and I don't talk about it much, but we know we're in a special group," Lawlor says. "I mean, who in their right mind walks on to the best team in the nation?"
Know a good walk-on story in college sports? Lindsay Schnell wants to hear it. Email her at SIwalkon@gmail.com.