Commentary

Ralph enjoying new role at UConn

Originally Published: March 10, 2009
By Graham Hays | ESPN.com

HARTFORD, Conn. -- In the moments immediately after Connecticut captured the Big East tournament title with a 75-36 rout of second-seeded Louisville, having made her way through the obligatory handshake line, Huskies first-year assistant coach Shea Ralph inconspicuously pulled sophomore Lorin Dixon aside for a moment of consultation.

In the giddy afterglow of one of Connecticut's most impressive demolition jobs -- when Maya Moore left the court for good Tuesday with eight minutes to play, she had single-handedly outscored the Cardinals 28-27 -- surely Ralph was sharing a moment of merriment with a prized pupil.

Well, at least the prized pupil part was right. But a moment of merriment? Not so much.

"I got mad at her, because she laughed when she shot an airball," Ralph admitted with a hint of a smile of her own at how that sounded. "I didn't think it was funny."

[+] EnlargeShea Ralph
AP Photo/Jessica HillShea Ralph was a star-crossed All-American at UConn plagued by knee injuries almost a decade ago. Now, she's in her first season as an assistant to Geno Auriemma.

Instead of the sneakers and basketball shorts she wore so memorably for the Huskies during her time as a star-crossed All-American plagued by knee injuries almost a decade ago, Ralph was nattily attired in heels and skirt as she recounted her conversation with Dixon. The contrast in fashion only made it easier to envision the moment as the end point of a grand narrative arc. After all, it had been a Big East final that marked the end of her playing career. After scoring 11 points in 14 minutes against Notre Dame in the 2001 final up the road from Hartford in Storrs, Ralph went down with a torn ACL in her left knee.

She was selected in the subsequent WNBA draft and tried to make a go of it, but six knee surgeries turned out to be beyond what even one of the game's fiercest competitors could come back from.

So after beginning her coaching career out of the shadow of Storrs, helping build Pittsburgh from a Big East afterthought into the semifinal team that showed up this year, closure was hers for the taking. Back on the right bench, she finally had another Big East title as the Huskies beat their third top-five opponent by at least 28 points.

That's what the story is supposed to read like in a place where Kara Wolters and Rebecca Lobo still grace the sidelines, albeit with microphones, Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird still come around for pickup games, and the talkative guy in the coffee shop is almost as likely to spin stories about Carla Berube as Don Mattingly or Roger Clemens.

At some point, when companies still had money for such sponsorship indulgences, the old Hartford Civic Center became the XL Center. But the green and white Hartford Whalers banners that still hang above one end of the arena, which this week served again as the host site of the Big East women's basketball tournament, are more instructive than the painted corporate logo on the court in establishing the state's sporting identity.

If there's cause to commemorate the 1974-75 divisional championship of a departed team in the now-defunct WHA, you get the feeling the natives have a reluctance to let go of anything, especially the players who cemented a basketball program's national legacy.

But even if that meant the faithful welcomed Ralph back like a returning hero, letting go of her past is exactly what is enabling her to play a pivotal part in the program's present.

"I'm over it," Ralph said as she dismissed any notion of coming full circle. "It's part of my story; it's part of my past. It's part of why I am the way I am and who I am now. I mean, that's kind of clichéd, but it's true. And especially for me -- definitely, I wish it could have been different, but it wasn't. And who's to say that if it hadn't happened differently, I wouldn't be here right now.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
David Butler II/US PresswireMaya Moore's 28 points helped UConn notch its third win over a top-five team this season by at least 28 points.

"I love my life. I love what I'm doing. I love being here, so I have no complaints."

And in that one moment with Dixon, or the conversation she had with injured freshman Caroline Doty on the bench almost an hour before the game, it's clear that the athlete who never really considered coaching has embraced the profession with the same passion with which she embraced the game as a player. It's why she pops off the bench at seemingly the slightest hint of excitement, the clipboard held firmly across her lap no longer able to act as a seat belt.

It's why shortly after Ralph finished her conversation with the irrepressible Dixon, she found herself ensnared in a warm hug from Kalana Greene, the redshirt junior who completed her comeback from last season's torn ACL by earning all-tournament honors in Hartford.

"She's intense," Greene said. "You come to a very experienced staff, and you have a lot of expectations [replacing Temple coach] Tonya Cardoza, one of the most experienced coaches on the coaching staff last year. But she just came in and was herself, didn't back down to the players, not really backing down to the coaches -- if she has a word to say, she'll say it. She's so intense; she loves the game. She loves this program. Me and Shea have a really good relationship. She's helped me a lot in the summer, rehab, and she's helped me a lot in the preseason."

For a team that is used to winning and used to living with the expectations of winning, the Huskies celebrated Tuesday with the innocence of an underdog. There wasn't any net trimming -- that's reserved for the NCAA tournament when you're at Connecticut -- but as each player, coach, manager and staff member was called to the podium to accept a winner's plaque, the recipient had to run a gauntlet of celebratory chest-bumping, butt-slapping, hair-tussling torment.

That included Ralph, who survived unscathed and emerged from the pack with both smile and heels intact. She admitted that as a player, she hadn't really thought as much about the coaches as her teammates in moments like the one that unfolded on the court, and that like all players, she assumed the same was probably true for the current group. But in the parental role coaches tend to inhabit, that doesn't matter a bit in appreciating the scene.

"There's no better reward that you can see -- when you see your players like that," Ralph said. "And especially their reactions to their teammates getting awards, and to their trainer. I mean, these are special kids, and they're genuinely happy for each other and they genuinely love each other and love to play together."

So if there is a need for this story to come full circle, perhaps it's best done by returning to Dixon, the sophomore reserve who drew the coach's ire with a moment of levity in a laugher of a game.

"Lorin is a player that, for me, is somebody that I'm really close to, and I really want her to do well and develop," Ralph said. "And right now, she's kind of at a crossroads in her career, where she's either going to turn the corner and continue to get better, or she's going to hit the wall. And I really think she's gifted, so I try to be in her ear a lot. I don't think she had a great game today, so basically that's what I was telling her."

As long as she has someone willing to tell her that, the odds are in Dixon's favor.

"She pours her heart into everything she does, and that's all you can ask for," Greene said of Ralph. "And she's going to be a really, really good coach."

Then Greene quickly corrected herself.

"She is a really good coach."

And she's a Big East champion. As a coach, for the very first time.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.