Walking on, walking on air: 2 UConn players living the dream
STORRS, Conn. (AP) UConn's Briana Pulido and Tierney Lawlor were good high school basketball players, but not at a level that would attract coach Geno Auriemma.
Neither 5-foot-7 guard, in fact, thought about playing in college until a tweet in 2013 from Breanna Stewart caught their eye. The Husky star said UConn, which had just nine scholarship athletes that season, was holding tryouts for walk-ons to help out in practice.
This week, Pulido, a senior, and Lawlor, a junior, head to their third Final Four, this time on scholarship. And they hope to play a small role in the undefeated team's attempt to win a fourth consecutive national championship.
''As a kid you grow up watching it and you're always thinking of it, but I never really believed it would happen,'' said Lawlor, who grew up a UConn fan. She was a three-sport athlete at Ansonia High School in Connecticut, where she averaged 12 points and nine rebounds.
Pulido was her high school's offensive player of the year as a senior, but came to UConn from Miami on a partial track scholarship. She earned records at Gulliver Preparatory in the high jump, 100-meter hurdles and 300-meter hurdles.
She said UConn's track coach was dumbfounded when she told him she was dropping that sport to become a basketball walk-on.
''He really thought I was crazy,'' she said. ''But I said, `This is what I really want to do.'''
Assistant coach Shea Ralph said the coaches were interested in Pulido almost immediately because she was already a UConn athlete. They knew less about Lawlor, but she shined during tryouts, especially during an individual workout.
''It's pretty intense,'' Ralph said. ''Some kids don't last three minutes. She went an hour without even asking for a water break and hit about 80 percent of her shots. I was like, `Whoa, I think we might have something here.'''
With UConn beating opponents by an average of more than 40-points a game, Pulido and Lawlor get playing time.
Lawlor has played 88 minutes this season (about three a game) and has scored 55 points during her three seasons, including nine points this year. Pulido has played 67 minutes this season, scoring four of her 21 career points.
Fans cheer for them to come in at the end of almost every blowout. They know Lawlor as the player who gathers the Huskies in the final huddle before each game, giving her teammates the final word of encouragement. Pulido is one who jumps up after every made 3-pointer, high-fiving Huskies up and down the bench.
But Stewart says their roles are much more important than that. At every practice, they push the starters, simulating the next opponent.
''A lot of what they do goes unnoticed, because they don't play a lot,'' she said. ''But the energy that they bring is like nobody else.''
Auriemma rewarded both with full scholarships after last season, saying then they were an example to his other players.
''The only thing that the other kids had to do to be on scholarship, they just had to be really good basketball players in high school and they were awarded a scholarship to come here,'' he said. ''These other two, they had to come here and prove that they deserved it and that means a lot to our players.''