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Canes Focus: Krystal Saunders

Canes Focus: Krystal Saunders

By David Villavicencio

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – KrystalSaunders never wanted to leave.

Family is very important to the West Park, Fla., native andshe knew she wanted to play in front of them.

Saunders, who was named Florida’s Miss Basketball in hersenior year at South Broward High School, was recruited by nearly every majorprogram in the country.  But she alwaysknew that Miami was where she wanted to be.

“I had a lot of schools coming after me but there was justsomething about Miami,” Saunders said. “I loved how [head coach] Katie [Meier]interacted with her players, how much she cared about them and how muchenthusiasm she had. I just felt like it was the right place for me to be andplus it was close to home. I had just moved back from Georgia, so I just feltlike it was the right place for me.”

Saunders originally had ACC rival Clemson as her leader duringthe recruiting process, but the appeal of playing close to home was impossibleto turn down.

“I’m very appreciative to have my family there because mostof the girls don’t,” Saunders said. “I’m from 30 minutes away, so I can drivehome whenever I want to. I even take the girls sometimes so they can be with myfamily because they’re away from theirs. I’m very grateful just to have them atevery game. They have season tickets for a reason. They don’t miss one game.”

The 5-foot-8 guard has always had a large group of familyand friends supporting her at the BankUnited Center, but her mother and biggestfan, Kala, was finally able to join that cheering section this season.

“It’s great because my mom is there,” Saunders said. “Shewas in Georgia and she just moved back this year, so it’s great to see her facebecause she’s my No. 1 fan. After a game, I get a phone call from her and wetalk about basketball all the time and just to see her face cheering me on isgreat.”

Miami head coach Katie Meier noticed a positive change inSaunders since her mother moved back to south Florida.

“I think she’s a lot more aware of who she is,” Meier said.”She is just a little bit more grounded now. I think she gets real goodfeedback from her mom, real honest feedback. Krystal puts a lot of pressure onherself and definitely expects to make every shot she takes and she expectsevery pass to be converted. I mean she’s totally a perfectionist, which youfind a lot in female athletes who have done well, and I think it’s nice to kindof have her mom there and just be like, ‘You did good, you did good. You know 5for 8 is still pretty good.’ I think it’s important for Krystal to have thatsounding board too.”

While Saunders’ cheering section gained a key component thisyear, it also lost one of her biggest fans when her grandfather, Michael,passed away. The 21-year-old is dedicating her season to her lost loved one.

“It happened so soon,” Saunders said. “I told myself to staystrong for my mom and just play hard whenever I go out there for him.”

Meier knows that it is hard for anyone to remain focusedwhen they lose someone they love, but she is impressed with how Saunders hashandled herself after her grandfather’s passing.

“I think that’s just an inspiration for her,” Meier said ofSaunders honoring her grandfather. “Krystal’s family is deeply rooted inbasketball. Their family and basketball is like intertwined. That’s where theydo a lot of their socialization, a lot of their conversations, so it was a bigloss for her. I thought she handled it really, really well, really maturely andyou can kind of see Krystal has definitely grown up this season.”

Saunders’ path to Miami is an interesting one. Meier and herstaff were aware of Saunders’ play at South Broward High School, but a callfrom fellow South Broward alum and former Hurricane great Tamara James reallyjumpstarted Miami’s pursuit of Saunders.

“Tamara was back working out at her high school and shecalled me and was like ‘I love this kid,'” Meier said. She said, ‘she’s a KatieMeier player. She competes, she’s smart, she dives on the floor, she talks, shedoes all the things you love in a player.’

Meier valued her former star’s opinion and went to get abetter look at Saunders. What she saw was exactly what James described and thatprompted her to invite Saunders to a Miami home game.

“It was [Shenise Johnson’s] freshman year and we lost toNorth Carolina,” Meier said. “Krystal was at the game and she figured shecouldn’t come back to talk. I was like, ‘oh no, come back here now. I want toknow you and I need you to be in these moments. I’m not only going to bring therecruits back when we win. Come in here and tell me what you saw.’ She said, ‘youneed to get [Shenise] some help.’

So I said, ‘well can you help?’ And she said ‘yeah.’ Ifanyone has that much moxie that they can come in here and tell me whatever withthat much confidence, I was like ‘well let’s do it. You have the offer.’ Shelooked me straight in the eye and said ‘you need me.’ I’ll never forget that. Itwas awesome.”

Meier believes the honest moment she and Saunders sharedthat day played a big part in her wanting to come to Miami. The transparencyMeier and her staff showed

“I think that honest moment, that raw moment was big,” Meiersaid. “She’s been pretty close with all of the coaches that she’s had and Ithink that was really important for her to have that trust factor. She was ableto see that we weren’t hiding anything. That was who we were.”

Since arriving at Miami, Saunders has blossomed as a player.Originally a role player in her early years, she has stepped into a key rolefor the Hurricanes as a junior.

“Halfway through the season, I guess we sort of figured thatKrystal needed more time at the point,” Meier said. “She can think very quicklyand she makes very quick decisions and she has a good amount of certainty whenshe makes them.  When [Michelle Woods]went down with the flu, Krystal really stepped up and then you just saw a newside of her emerging. That’s where her leadership has really been coming along.It happens a lot in basketball when you have to fill another role and you justadd it to your capacity. That’s been fun she seeing her just expand her game.”

Saunders recognizes the importance of her development. She,along with veterans Morgan Stroman, Stefanie Yderstrom and Pepper Wilson, needsto be a consistent performer for the Canes to continue their success.

“I felt like I had to step up and be a leader,” Saunderssaid. “We have Pep and Stro and Stef, but I feel like my role as a point guard,just being a vocal leader, that’s where my progression came from and thatbrought confidence to my game.”