Women's basketball phenom Norika Konno received a wealth of valuable experience, both on and off the court, during her first season at Louisville.
Her freshman campaign, however, still came to a bitter end because of an injury and also the COVID-19 outbreak.
Konno had been sidelined since mid-January because of an injury to her right knee. She underwent surgery on March 12, the same day the NCAA announced the cancellation of both the men's and women's Division I NCAA Tournaments.
She returned home to Sendai on March 25 after Louisville's practice facilities, and the school itself, was shut down amid the growing coronavirus pandemic.
Konno played her final game of the season on Jan. 16 against Boston College, before missing the rest because of her knee injury. She had felt discomfort in the knee since last year’s FIBA U19 Women’s World Cup in Thailand.
Konno hadn't expected to get much playing time as a true freshman, having seen fellow Japanese Rui Hachimura average just 4.6 minutes per game in his first season at Gonzaga.
“I went over there, thinking it could happen to me, too,” Konno said when asked if she was aware how much Hachimura, now with the Washington Wizards, played in his first year in the U.S.
As it turned out, Konno was given ample playing time from head coach Jeff Walz. The 19-year-old played 15.1 minutes per game, averaging 4.6 points and 1.9 assists for the Cardinals, who finished at sixth in both the AP and Coaches Poll, this past year. Considering she had to cope with the language barrier and other different cultural basketball customs, her season was even more of a surprise.
Asked which games were the most memorable, Konno named games against then-No. 1 Oregon and Ohio State. She scored six points in a 72-62 win over the Ducks and eight points in a 67-60 loss to the Buckeyes.
Konno said she was motivated to take on Oregon and Sabrina Ionescu, who was selected with the No. 1 overall pick by the New York Liberty in the WNBA draft last week.
“I was watching her play in a movie while I was still in Japan,” Konno said of Ionescu. “So now I was actually sharing the same court as her and it gave me extra motivation.”
She faced some tough times, which led her to lose confidence, during the season as well.
But Walz, who guided the Cardinals to a pair of runner-up finishes in the NCAA Tournament, helped revitalize her.
“(Walz) was aware that I was losing my confidence and talked to me during and after practices,” Konno said. “And one day, I was told to come to his office. Our video coordinator was there, too. And they showed a highlight film of me from the season.
“The video coordinator had actually asked what my favorite Japanese music was. (The person) put the music in the highlight film. They did that so that I’d regain my confidence. It made me cry a lot and it did help me regain my confidence. I thought he was such a great coach and it made me think I had to work harder.”
Konno has always liked crooning songs, by the way. Her roommates and fellow freshman players Romani Parker, Nyah Green and three other teammates listed Konno as “best singer on the team” in the media guide.
“Really?” Konno reacted with a smile when she was told many of her teammates say she is good at singing. “I didn’t know that.”
Meanwhile, Konno actively made took steps to be a better player. In addition to practices and games keeping her busy, academics were also a challenge because of the language barrier.
Konno said she sometimes did not go back to her dormitory room and stayed at the gym so she could devote her spare time to practice. She would sometimes work on her shooting until late at night and sleep on a couch in the locker room before going to her classes the next day.
“Other players were like, ‘You’re staying here? Are you all right?’” Konno said. “But it takes me longer to finish my homework than others and it wasn’t easy for me to find the time (for practicing), so I was like, ‘Yeah, I am.’”
During her high school days at Seiwa Gakuen, Konno excelled as one of the best players in her age group with her exceptional drive-in and mid-range jump shooting skills, which continue to be her strengths at Louisville.
But as a shooting guard, the 179-cm player knows that she needs to improve her long-range jumpers and 3-point shooting (her 3-point percentage was 12.5) to be a more efficient scorer.
Partially thanks for the above-mentioned effort, Konno felt that she was getting better in those areas as the season progressed.
Nonetheless, Walz reflected on Konno’s first campaign with the Cards in a positive tone, stating that he was “very impressed with how quickly” she adjusted to the English language. He added that the Japanese was “a great teammate” and was “very active with our team” continuing to study the game.
“I expect Norika to have a major impact on our team this upcoming season,” Walz said in an email. “She has a ton of potential and has a great feel for the game. Her ability to get to the rim and shoot off the dribble is very impressive.”
Walz added: “She has been a joy to have in our program and I am excited to get her back on campus, hopefully this summer.”
Konno actually played in one more game after her final regular-season contest on Jan. 16. That was in an exhibition against the United States national team at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center on Feb. 2, which was part of the Dawn Staley-led national team’s preparation for Tokyo Olympics.
Konno played 13 minutes, recording two rebounds and an assist in a 97-54 loss to Team USA. It was another moment where she felt her decision to join the powerhouse program paid off, even if it meant coming thousands of kilometers away from home. She said that she had a chance to talk with stars like Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi during a USA practice.
“Watching their speed and everything about the national team, it made me think this is what makes them who they are and I thought that’s the level I need to aim at,” recalled Konno, who helped the Japan women’s 3×3 team capture a silver medal at the 2018 Asian Games.
Although she feels she suffered a setback because of the knee injury and does not think she will be playing at the Tokyo Olympics, Konno eventually wants to represent her country with the senior team in the near future.
Some might think it would be difficult for her to be called up for the national team while attending Louisville because of the distance between the two nations. Konno, however, disagrees. She thinks she'd be asked to join if she's thought of as an irreplaceable player, regardless of where she plays.
Konno said Walz had already given his word she could leave the Cardinals if she was called up for the national team before she arrived in Louisville.
“So I want to do it if I have a chance,” Konno said. “If I don’t get called up, it is going to be because I’m not good enough, not because of the distance or because I’m in the States.”