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New London's Lucas watched and learned at Hartford, then grabbed her opportunity

Morgan Valley got hired as head coach of the University of Hartford women's basketball team on April 17, 2019, and inherited a group of players she had never met before and hadn't recruited.

One of those players was Jada Lucas, the former New London High School whiz kid, who helped guide the Whalers to the 2017 Class LL state championship and the state's No. 1 ranking, then returned a year later after already leaving for Hartford to unveil the championship banner in New London's storied Conway Gymnasium.

Lucas, a 5-foot-5 guard, had completed two seasons at Hartford prior to Valley's arrival. As a freshman she averaged 4.3 minutes per game and finished with a grand total of nine points or .6 per game. As a sophomore, Lucas averaged 9.1 minutes and 2.0 points per game.

Valley, a 2004 UConn graduate and a member of three NCAA championships while playing for coach Geno Auriemma's Huskies, saw something she liked in Lucas.

"I think she wants to play," Valley said in a recent telephone interview, asked of her first impression of Lucas. "She just loves being out there and competing. I love that about her. She's just a good person, too. When you coach young people who work hard and who are good people, you pull for them."

Lucas, it seems, was trying to make a positive imprint on the new coach as she began her junior season a year ago.

"Our first couple workouts, she was so nervous to impress us, she would cramp up and have to leave the workout," Valley said. "This anxiety built up in her. She would have to get stretched out and rejoin the workout. She's come a long way."

Lucas has reached her senior season. Having started all 29 games a year ago, she began this season coming off the bench for the Hawks, with Valley believing she gives the team a spark in that role.

Lucas is Hartford's leading scorer with 9.3 points per game and has 12 assists and eight steals so far. Her 14-point effort, including three 3-pointers, led the Hawks in a home victory, 64-57, on Dec. 29 against the University of New Hampshire. That followed a 1-for-8 shooting night one day earlier, a creditable bounce-back.

Hartford is 3-5 overall and in the America East Conference, having won just one game a year ago and this season already claiming a three-game winning streak.

Maybe one of the biggest credits to Lucas ... Valley, who barely knew her a year ago at this time, has invited Lucas to use the extra year of eligibility the NCAA has granted to all athletes this winter to rejoin the team for a fifth season.

"It was kind of crazy (last year)," Lucas said. "The last time I really played was senior year of high school. I was just watching and learning. It was rough. It made me question a lot, if I still even wanted to play basketball.

"Now it was junior year; I had no time to wait."

Lucas was worried at first about the departure of former coach Kim McNeil, who left to take the head coaching job at East Carolina.

"What was the next step?" Lucas said. "We could have got a coach the opposite of coach Valley. When I finally met (Valley) — at first they said her name and there was no face with the name — literally everything she was saying was relatable. I could see myself enjoying playing for her.

"The mindset for last year, I feel like our games ... some games were honestly really close but we didn't have enough chemistry. We didn't have experience closing out games. (Valley's) word is 'never fold.'"

Hartford was 0-28 last season and down to its final game against Stony Brook, the first-place team in the America East. A loss would have made the Hawks the only winless Division I team in the nation. Lucas had other plans, finishing with 20 points (3-for-4 from 3-point range) to lead Hartford to a pulsating 73-70 victory, the first of Valley's career as a head coach.

Lucas led Hartford on the season with 373 points, 38 3-pointers and 44 steals, averaging 12.9 points over 35 minutes per game.

"She can just score," Valley said, listing Lucas' virtues. "Her mid-range game is lights out. She's great in transition. When she's aggressive, she's really hard to stop. She's just super quick, she can score. She's got a chip on her shoulder; she didn't play two years and she's small. (But) every time she steps on the floor, she knows she has our confidence."

***

Lucas was part of a class at New London which won two state championships, taking the Class M title as freshmen under coach Kerrianne Dugan and the Class LL crown as seniors, led by coach Holly Misto.

Lucas and her classmates, including fellow Class LL all-state selection India Pagan, now a senior at Division I Stony Brook, played in three state championship games at Mohegan Sun Arena, their final chapter coming before a crowd of 8,186.

"They brought a whole new attitude to New London High School girls' basketball," Misto said prior to that title game.

Lucas, the sharp-shooting point guard, was named one of 10 players on The Day's All-Decade Team as well as serving as one of the key elements for a New London squad which was named Team of the Decade, Program of the Decade and as one of the participants in the newspaper's Game of the Decade.

Lucas was a 1,000-point scorer, two-time Most Valuable Player of the Notre Dame Classic at Christmas-time and earned selection to The Day's All-Area Team twice.

She played AAU basketball prior to her junior year for New Heights AAU out of New York City, elevating her game. She committed to play for Hartford in June of 2016, headed into her senior season at New London.

"That's so long ago. That's crazy," Lucas said. "I didn't forget any of that, all the memories. When I was younger, just playing outside. There were always kids outside and they were all boys, honestly. Playing with them just got me tough. My dad working me out, we would go to the gym at Coast Guard. I always played AAU growing up with the (Connecticut) Storm and all of that.

"I just feel like it's in my blood, honestly."

***

Lucas, 21, is majoring in psychology at Hartford, an atmosphere which she said reminds her of New London — "small school but big at the same time and literally everyone shows love," she said.

Because of the COVID-19 virus, Lucas spent the summer at home instead of on campus. She got a couple of jobs to make some extra money, one of them from 6-10:30 a.m. making coffee at her aunt's Shell gas station in Waterford.

She played basketball outdoors at the Night Flight Basketball League in Norwich, joining one-time teammate Charee Osborne and a number of other former local high school all-stars to win the women's division championship.

"This summer made you feel like you were taking a break from the stuff you're used to doing," Lucas said.

The America East's format this season, in order to reduce travel due to the pandemic, features opponents playing back-to-back games at one venue on weekends.

For instance, on Jan. 2-3, the Hawks traveled to Binghamton, where they won 64-54 on Saturday but lost 52-44 on Sunday. Last week they had a two-game home series against UMass Lowell and this week they have a Sunday-Monday set at New Jersey Insitute of Technology in Newark.

Lucas said as a shooter she's used to shaking off a bad game and just continuing to move forward.

"It's a mindset you have to play with. If you think opposite, you're just going to play opposite. You got to take shots to make shots," she said.

"We've just got to figure out our rotations and get it down pat. I just have to trust what (Valley) tells me. She has my best interest. (This season), every game counts, every possession counts. I try to even take in warmups and stuff. ... I feel like I was supposed to be here."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

 

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