Even through slumps, versatile guard Taylor Koenen remembers who she's always been
Every seat in Carmichael Arena is empty. The court is, too, except for two people: Taylor Koenen and her father, Doug.
He flew down from Savage, Minn., to surprise his daughter for the weekend, looking to spend some quality time doing whatever she wanted. With only an hour until her 11 p.m. curfew, Taylor, a guard on the UNC women's basketball team, had one thing on her mind.
"I said, ‘Let's go to the gym — I want to go to the gym and shoot with you,’” the sophomore recalled. “He just makes me laugh and I don't even think about it. Then I go through the routine that we always do and I never miss a shot. And I remember I really am a shooter ... this is why I do this. This is fun. He helps me be the best version of myself."
An empty gym at night is a blissful thing for Koenen. She doesn’t think about her shot form or the judging voices. The ball smacks the net, just like it used to, time and time again. And on this night, less than 17 hours before an afternoon game against Louisville, she made 37 in a row.
“I rebounded, she shot — just like the old times,” her father said. “I tried to tell her, 'Remember your room back home and all those awards. You're the Gatorade Player of the Year (in Minnesota), you're the best shooter to come out, you did all this stuff. You're forgetting where you came from.'”
Both of the Koenens (pronounced KOO-nuhn) know what she’s capable of, but the results in college haven’t been like high school. Going into the ACC Tournament, the sophomore has shot just 17.8 percent on 3-pointers in her two years at North Carolina.
Even when she gets her ceremonial Starbucks chai latte on game days, the shots still won’t fall. Koenen says shooting has always been one of her best assets, but it’s not the only one. The reason she remains in the starting lineup, remains one of the most important players on North Carolina’s team, is that she does so much else.
"I call her L.B., Larry Bird, because she can play a lot of positions," head coach Sylvia Hatchell said. “She works her butt off. She gets in the gym, she shoots and works out all the time. She's very mature and has a tremendous work ethic."
Hatchell calls her Larry Bird, and her dad calls her Deion Sanders. Her season averages back it up: she's fourth on the team in points (8.2), second in rebounds (6.8) and third in assists (3.5).
Koenen's versatility reaches all the way back to her childhood, when she played sports year-round. She racked up 15 high school varsity letters in three sports. She started playing varsity tennis in seventh grade, and basketball and softball in the eighth grade.
Her level of maturity as a kid was tested regularly, especially once she hit eighth grade. After visiting Iowa State for a basketball camp, she received a call from Bill Fennelly, ISU’s head coach.
“She got off the phone and said, ‘They offered me a scholarship,’” Doug recalled. “She’s in eighth grade. I’m like, ‘You heard wrong.’”
She didn’t hear wrong. The Cyclones were the first team to offer, and then more kept rolling in. Koenen handled most of the recruiting herself, even at such a young age. There was one name on her shortlist that stuck out, though — North Carolina. Growing up in Minnesota, it was a surprise to many that the Tar Heels were on her radar. But you can chalk that up to her dad. Despite the fact that he was an Iowa guy, and even made his daughter's email name ‘tskhawkeye,’ he loved watching UNC.
“I brought her up on North Carolina,” her father said. “I brought her up on Michael Jordan and Carolina basketball. She had Jordan shoes, even when she was little.”
Koenen took a visit to Chapel Hill the summer after her sophomore season, and she knew it was the place for her. She committed shortly after and started to hone her game. She forewent her final year of softball, much to her coach’s dismay, in order to get ready for her time down South.
When she arrived, it was different, but some aspects were similar. The people were new, the climate warmer. But Koenen’s familiar territory came with the fact that she was forced to jump in immediately, and she didn’t have much in the way of senior leadership.
She arrived just two years after the academic-athletic allegations rocked the women’s basketball program, resulting in transfers left and right. Koenen played in all 31 games last year, starting in 12. Early on, she found one player that pushed her as hard as she pushes herself — Stephanie Watts.
"When she first got here, we became really close," Watts said. "Every time I'd be going to the gym I'd text her and, of course, she'd always come. She's just like a sponge for knowledge."
Koenen’s drive to train is not limited to basketball. In fact, she is without a doubt a perfectionist in both her sports and education.
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“Everything I do I make sure I do it to the best of my ability,” Koenen said. “Whether it's a paper, whether I'm shooting. If I miss two shots in a row I'm like, 'Oh my god, what's going on here.'”
The hard work has paid off. At the beginning of February, Koenen was selected as one of three ACC representatives for the NCAA Autonomy Committee. She will join N.C. State’s Harli Hubbard (softball) and Miami’s Demetrius Jackson (football) to give student-athletes voting power in proposed NCAA rules changes. Koenen already represents UNC women’s basketball with Jamie Cherry on the UNC Student-Athlete Advisory Council.
But this high standard that she holds herself to has only made her shortcomings that much harder to deal with. Shakopee, Koenen’s high school, only made the state tournament once in her five years on the team. That year, she was a junior, and Shakopee made it to the state semifinals. The lack of winning has been even harder in college, with the Tar Heels going 15-16 last year and sitting at 14-15 this year, as of Wednesday.
"I’m a very mental player,” Koenen said. “It’s just like battling myself. Because out there I’m my own worst enemy ... With the losing streak, it did feel like the weight was on my shoulders. It's never fun to lose, especially for me. I hate losing more than I love winning."
The ACC Tournament, which starts Wednesday in Greensboro, gives 12th-seeded North Carolina a chance to end a nine-game losing streak.
Koenen played one of her best games in the team's 72-60 victory over Pittsburgh in the first round of the ACC Tournament last year. Then a first-year, she earned her first career double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing 11 boards while playing every minute.
“I try to go into every game with the idea that this could be your last game,” Koenen said. “How do you want to be remembered? The fact that it really could’ve been the last game I wanted to go out there in overdrive. Go out there fearless.”
Maybe she will have another career game against 13th-seeded Boston College. Maybe the Starbucks nearest to the Greensboro Coliseum will make a special chai latte. Or, maybe not.
Regardless of result, Koenen will never stop working toward perfection.