PHILADELPHIA — When the two-time defending champion University of Connecticut Huskies — the Goliath of NCAA women’s basketball — were upset last weekend, it was an Israeli hoops sensation who delivered the final blow.
Liad Suez, a 22-year-old sophomore, made all eight of her shots in the second half, including the game-winner, to lead the Villanova University Wildcats to a 59-56 victory over UConn.
“It was one of those days when you get into a rhythm and everything goes,” Suez told the Forward two days after her team’s big win. “I couldn’t really believe that we just beat UConn.”
Suez, who under NCAA rules governing international players was forced to sit out her first year at Villanova, a Catholic institution in suburban Philadelphia, has led the young team, along with senior Courtney Mix (daughter of former NBA player Steve Mix), to a record of 22 wins and 5 losses and a Top 25 ranking. At 6-foot-2, the Israeli native is extremely versatile, capable of playing nearly every position on the court. She leads the team in scoring with an average 13.8 points per game, and ranks second on the squad in rebounding and assists.
Suez comes from a very athletic family: Her father, Sami, played basketball in Israel for a professional team in Afula, her mother, Tami, was a physical education teacher, and her older brother, Maoz, plays basketball for Kutztown University in Allentown, Pa.
Ironically, while growing up, Suez followed the UConn men’s team and its Israeli stars, Nadav Henefeld and Doron Sheffer. Suez said that she was motivated by “watching Doron Sheffer play and just seeing the whole environment of college basketball and how much fun it is.” While Suez did consider playing for UConn (Israel’s Orly Grossman played for the Lady Huskies in the early 1990’s), her main goal was just to compete somewhere in the United States.
It was an chance meeting that eventually brought Suez from Israel to play for Villanova coach Harry Perretta. “One of Harry’s friends, Howie Landa, came to a clinic in Israel and accidentally saw me play,” Suez said.
Landa, who was coaching the U.S. men’s Maccabiah team at the time, mentioned Suez to Perretta, who then sent assistant coach Joe Mullaney to scout her. The reviews were great and Suez was on her way to Villanova.
This summer, Suez will return to Israel for her wedding (she was actually married last April in the United States, but will be having a larger, traditional Jewish ceremony in Israel). As for the immediate future, Suez and Villanova are hoping to extend their season as long as they can. The Big East Tournament starts this weekend and the NCAA tournament begins in mid-March.
Suez has proven to be a prized recruit, but she started off slowly in the UConn game, making only one of her shots in the first half, which ended with Villanova down by six points.
Perretta claims that he didn’t offer up any words of wisdom to his players at halftime. “I didn’t say anything,” the coach said. “I just let them alone.”
The strategic silence worked, especially in the case of Suez, who didn’t miss a shot in the second half. With 59 seconds left, and the score tied at 54, Perretta called Suez’s number, and she hit a turnaround jumper from just inside the three-point line to give Villanova the lead for good.
Suez then sank two free throws to clinch the win, giving her 23 points on the night. “Some teams are athletic, some are strong, some are really good shooters. [The Huskies are] all of the above,” Suez said. “It’s challenging. When you play the best, you have to push yourself to match their level.”