It wasn’t easy, but UConn women’s basketball overcame the size and strength of the Texas frontcourt to pull away for a decisive 72-54 victory in the Jimmy V. Classic at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Longhorns (2-4) went inside early and often to jump out to a 4-1 lead within the first 40 seconds. Texas would maintain the lead for the remainder of the first quarter, leading by as much as six after Ariel Atkins capitalized on a flagrant foul from Katie Lou Samuelson to put the Longhorns up 12-6 with 4:45 left in the opening quarter, and led 17-15 after a layup from UConn’s Napheesa Collier as time expired pulled the Huskies (7-0) within two.
“That first five minutes (of the first quarter) I think was a real eye opener… because we’re used to doing that to people,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Those first five minutes were usually what we do, and then everyone is trying to play catch up.”
Collier was once again UConn’s most consistent player throughout the game, scoring a game-high 24 points with eight rebounds and five steals. Against the larger Texas frontcourt, Collier continued to have success down low while also mixing in some touch from long range, shooting 2-3 from the 3-point line. As UConn struggled throughout the first quarter, Collier kept the Huskies afloat with seven points, two blocks and a steal.
After shooting just 15 percent on 13 3-point attempts as a freshman last season, Collier has already shown a dramatic improvement in her sophomore season, making five out her 10 attempts this season to shoot 50 percent from beyond the arc.
“It’s something I’ve been working on and I want to make myself more of an outside threat,” Collier said.
While Collier led the way for UConn in the opening period, it was junior Kia Nurse who helped the Huskies claw back and take their first lead of the game. Nurse picked up where she left off in her 33-point performance against DePaul, scoring the quarter’s first seven points to give UConn a 22-17 less than two minutes into the second and adding another 3-pointer to score 10 of her 15 points in the second half and give the Huskies a nine-point lead at halftime.
Just as Collier carried UConn in the first and Nurse did in the second, Samuelson followed suit to help thwart a Texas comeback. After sitting out the second quarter due to foul trouble, an energized Samuelson made her presence known in the second half, scoring 12 points to seal the Huskies’ second-straight win over a ranked opponent.
“I wanted to get out there and show them that they could rely on me,” Samuelson said of her second-half performance. “Overall I think I did a lot more to contribute (in the second half), not just scoring points but just being involved in everything.”
Samuelson hit the 100th 3-pointer of her career with 5:21 left in the third quarter to put UConn up 47-39, and hit a jumper off a screen following a layup from Gabby Williams to make it 51-44. After a short 5-0 run from Texas cut the Huskies’ lead to two, Samuelson found Williams cutting to the basket on an inbounds play for an easy layup to go up by four. With a minute left, Samuelson would bury another jumper off a screen to put UConn up six.
Collier and Samuelson would go on to close out the Longhorns nearly by themselves, scoring 13 of UConn’s 15 fourth quarter points as the Huskies pulled away for the 18-point victory. While this team may lack star power players like Breanna Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson brought one year ago, Auriemma believes this team’s balance and multitude of scoring options is what makes this team nearly as dangerous.
“We seem to find someone each game that kind of gets it going for us,” Auriemma said. “In the Baylor game it was Crystal, in the Florida State it was Napheesa, and today it was Napheesa and Kia, and Lou (Samuelson) in the second half…We have to play that way. We have to step up.”
With a tough road matchup against No. 1 Notre Dame just a few days away, UConn will have their work cut out for them to reclaim the No. 1 ranking in one of the sport’s greatest rivalries. But after a tough and physical win like tonight, Auriemma and the Huskies seem ready for the challenge.
“Obviously it’s going to be an incredibly pro-Notre Dame environment, and given the history the last three or four years between the two teams I would thin there’s going to be a high level of energy and intensity in the crowd and in their team, and we’re going to have to match that…It’s going to be fun the next couple of days preparing for that.”