The word on the streets matched, in Cedar Rapids and Storrs.
“I was walking down the street after last season, and somebody asked where I was going to transfer,” said Kiah Stokes, the former McDonald’s All-American player from Linn-Mar and current UConn Husky.
The word on the street, whether in Cedar Rapids or Storrs, was false.
“I’m like, ‘I’m never going to leave,’ ” Stokes said. “That’s not an option. I didn’t want people to think I couldn’t handle it.”
Stokes has handled injury. She has dealt with the expectations of playing for the nation’s premier women’s basketball program. She has even weathered The Wrath of Geno.
And now, as a junior for the top-ranked, defending-champion Huskies, she has blossomed.
Stokes’ numbers are up all across the board after a rough sophomore season. She is averaging 6.7 points and 8.2 rebounds in nearly 21 minutes per game as UConn has started 12-0.
A 6-foot-3 center, Stokes is second on the team in rebounds and blocks (32).
“Maybe she’s just having a little bit of success and wants more of it,” UConn Coach Geno Auriemma said in a Connecticut Post story in November.
“That’s the only thing I can think of, because it’s not like all of a sudden she has gotten any taller or any quicker or any stronger or any faster. She’s still the same person. She’s the same person trying to do more things than she did last year. That’s 90 percent of the battle. Just try more.”
The Gazette’s 2011 Female Athlete of the Year and Miss Iowa Basketball 2011, Stokes went to UConn with high credentials, and lived up to them initially. She was a member of the 2011-12 all-Big East freshman team after averaging 4.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.
She had foot surgery after the season, though, and her sophomore season was a disappointment.
“Once you get down, it’s hard to pick yourself back up during the season,” Stokes said. “I thought I was working hard. When you get tired, you need to go that extra step. I didn’t realize that.
“Doing it my way didn’t work.”
For a coach like Auriemma, doing it any way other than his way isn’t a recipe for success.
A star at Linn-Mar and a solid member of the rotation as a freshman, Stokes became nearly an end-of-the-bencher last winter. The Connecticut Post called Stokes “a regular target of (Auriemma’s) criticism over the past two seasons.”
“I don’t think I’d say I was in (Auriemma’s) doghouse. But I felt I could never get on his good side,” Stokes said. “Off the court, we were fine. On, not so much.”
That made for mixed emotions last season, when the Huskies won the national championship, their eighth under Auriemma.
Thus the query from the gentleman on the street to Stokes, in Storrs. Meanwhile, back in Iowa, folks wondered if Stokes was about to return home, broken and beaten, to transfer and play at Iowa or Iowa State.
Never an option, she said.
Injuries to Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck opened the door for Stokes’ re-entry into the rotation, and she has stepped through quite nicely.
“When Morgan and Kaleena got hurt, Coach had to rely on me,” Stokes said.
“I had a chance and I wanted to make the most of it. I wanted him to know he could count on me more my last two years.”
Stokes said, despite the outside speculation, she never considered leaving UConn. The challenge ahead is broad.
So is the opportunity.
“I wanted to prove it to everyone I had it in me, and I wanted to prove it to myself,” she said. “I want to finish the job I came here to do.”