By David Villavicencio
CORAL GABLES, Fla. - Krystal Saunders never wanted to leave.
Family is very important to the West Park, Fla., native and she knew she wanted to play in front of them.
Saunders, who was named Florida's Miss Basketball in her senior year at South Broward High School, was recruited by nearly every major program in the country. But she always knew that Miami was where she wanted to be.
"I had a lot of schools coming after me but there was just something about Miami," Saunders said. "I loved how [head coach] Katie [Meier] interacted with her players, how much she cared about them and how much enthusiasm she had. I just felt like it was the right place for me to be and plus it was close to home. I had just moved back from Georgia, so I just felt like it was the right place for me."
Saunders originally had ACC rival Clemson as her leader during the recruiting process, but the appeal of playing close to home was impossible to turn down.
"I'm very appreciative to have my family there because most of the girls don't," Saunders said. "I'm from 30 minutes away, so I can drive home whenever I want to. I even take the girls sometimes so they can be with my family because they're away from theirs. I'm very grateful just to have them at every 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 family and friends supporting her at the BankUnited Center, but her mother and biggest fan, Kala, was finally able to join that cheering section this season.
"It's great because my mom is there," Saunders said. "She was in Georgia and she just moved back this year, so it's great to see her face because she's my No. 1 fan. After a game, I get a phone call from her and we talk about basketball all the time and just to see her face cheering me on is great."
Miami head coach Katie Meier noticed a positive change in Saunders 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 good feedback from her mom, real honest feedback. Krystal puts a lot of pressure on herself and definitely expects to make every shot she takes and she expects every pass to be converted. I mean she's totally a perfectionist, which you find a lot in female athletes who have done well, and I think it's nice to kind of have her mom there and just be like, 'You did good, you did good. You know 5 for 8 is still pretty good.' I think it's important for Krystal to have that sounding board too."
While Saunders' cheering section gained a key component this year, 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 stay strong for my mom and just play hard whenever I go out there for him."
Meier knows that it is hard for anyone to remain focused when they lose someone they love, but she is impressed with how Saunders has handled herself after her grandfather's passing.
"I think that's just an inspiration for her," Meier said of Saunders honoring her grandfather. "Krystal's family is deeply rooted in basketball. Their family and basketball is like intertwined. That's where they do a lot of their socialization, a lot of their conversations, so it was a big loss for her. I thought she handled it really, really well, really maturely and you can kind of see Krystal has definitely grown up this season."
Saunders' path to Miami is an interesting one. Meier and her staff were aware of Saunders' play at South Broward High School, but a call from fellow South Broward alum and former Hurricane great Tamara James really jumpstarted Miami's pursuit of Saunders.
"Tamara was back working out at her high school and she called me and was like 'I love this kid,'" Meier said. She said, 'she's a Katie Meier player. She competes, she's smart, she dives on the floor, she talks, she does all the things you love in a player.'
Meier valued her former star's opinion and went to get a better look at Saunders. What she saw was exactly what James described and that prompted her to invite Saunders to a Miami home game.
"It was [Shenise Johnson's] freshman year and we lost to North Carolina," Meier said. "Krystal was at the game and she figured she couldn't come back to talk. I was like, 'oh no, come back here now. I want to know you and I need you to be in these moments. I'm not only going to bring the recruits back when we win. Come in here and tell me what you saw.' She said, 'you need to get [Shenise] some help.'
So I said, 'well can you help?' And she said 'yeah.' If anyone has that much moxie that they can come in here and tell me whatever with that much confidence, I was like 'well let's do it. You have the offer.' She looked me straight in the eye and said 'you need me.' I'll never forget that. It was awesome."
Meier believes the honest moment she and Saunders shared that day played a big part in her wanting to come to Miami. The transparency Meier and her staff showed
"I think that honest moment, that raw moment was big," Meier said. "She's been pretty close with all of the coaches that she's had and I think that was really important for her to have that trust factor. She was able to 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 role for the Hurricanes as a junior.
"Halfway through the season, I guess we sort of figured that Krystal needed more time at the point," Meier said. "She can think very quickly and she makes very quick decisions and she has a good amount of certainty when she makes them. When [Michelle Woods] went down with the flu, Krystal really stepped up and then you just saw a new side 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 just add 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, needs to be a consistent performer for the Canes to continue their success.
"I felt like I had to step up and be a leader," Saunders said. "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 that brought confidence to my game."