Irwin finds her place in UConn’s program

By Nate Ritchey

Kyla Irwin grew up in a basketball house with a mother, Bethany, who played at Penn State and who also coached her in high school, while her dad, Rob, was the assistant.

Kyla literally was in the gym from the time she was born as Bethany began coaching before her daughter was alive.

The State College graduate chose the University of Connecticut to continue her basketball career and the choice has been one that the sophomore hasn’t regretted.

“She taught me the game, and how to see the game at a different perspective. Go out there and try to think of what to do next, and not so much the play right here — I have to see the play ahead,” Kyla Irwin said. “They (UConn) do a great job of making sure that we know our stuff, that we are paying attention and doing those little things that we can. Being a coach’s kid has been something where I have learned the game from a young age as I was in the gym forever.”

Irwin and the Huskies are once again in the Final Four — a spot the program has been in 19 times overall and for the 11th straight year. UConn will look to capture its 12th national title starting Friday when it takes on Notre Dame with tipoff scheduled for around 9:30 p.m.

“It’s pushing me every day and making me the best I can possibly be, and just being a part of this program has taught me so much on and off the court,” Irwin said. “Like just what it means to be a great teammate. I would do anything I possibly could for these girls. So, I think just being part of this program has helped instill roles in my life that will help me throughout my entire life.”

After scoring 2,032 points, pulling down 1,188 rebounds, dishing out 244 assists, coming up with 200 steals and blocking 150 shots as a four-year starter at State College, Irwin’s role has changed significantly in Storrs, Conn.

Through 61 career games that she has played with the Huskies, Irwin is averaging 8.7 minutes, 2.4 points and 1.3 rebounds per contest.

It’s safe to say that unless the Huskies blow out the Fighting Irish that Irwin won’t get to see much if any time on the floor. Through her first two seasons, that’s been something that the 6-foot-2 forward has gotten used to.

Connecticut usually routs most teams which in turn allows Irwin and her benchmates to get into the game and put into effect the things they’ve been working toward in practices.

“Nothing really surprised me (coming to UConn). It’s not easy, but I didn’t expect it to be easy in any type of way,” Irwin said. “… You have to go out there and give it your 110-percent 24/7.”

UConn has had several players come into its program with as much or more fanfare than Irwin, but have found the playing rotation tough to crack — leading them to find other places to play where they can contribute more.

While that could definitely be the case for Irwin, she said that’s not even something that has ever entered her mind.

“No, I have not thought about some place else where I could potentially get more minutes — it’s not really about that. It’s the experience of being here and working my butt off every single day,” Irwin said. “I think that instills more in me than playing 30 minutes a game. Just making sure that I’m working my hardest in all aspects of my life. I think you can’t really change that for anything.”

Following a disappointing and upsetting loss to Mississippi State in last year’s semifinals, Irwin and the Huskies are facing the potential of getting the rematch they’ve been hoping for in Sunday’s title game — provided the Bulldogs are able to get past Louisville in the first semifinal.

No matter the case, Irwin is enjoying the ride and is making many memories both on and off the court.

“I think I just love staying in hotels, being with your roomates and everything. We do dinners where everyone brings food,” she said. “It doesn’t always have to be something basketball-related, it’s just being a college kid and hanging out with my teammates. We play a lot of Uno. These girls are all really fun and really genuine. So, you can’t go wrong.”