When Olivia Nelson-Ododa left her home in Georgia to come to snowy Connecticut, she had one goal in mind: To become a star player and help her new team win its 12th national championship and beyond – and have fun doing it.
Kim Garren, her high school coach, is just one of many who never doubted her ability to reach her goal.
“When we sat down and talked about all of those goals and we talked about what needed to happen, she was willing to do everything,” Garren said. “That was when I was like, ‘Alright, this kid is going to be special.’”
Garren, who also teaches engineering at Nelson-Ododa’s high school, Winder Barrow High School, said the UConn freshman is not only a force on the court, but off it, too.
Despite the fact she plays a rugged style of basketball, Nelson-Ododa likes to have fun before, during and after games. In high school, her sense of humor helped calm her teammates ahead of the state tournament. One moment has stuck with Garren for years.
“We had not been in the state championship in 22 years,” Garren said. “We had been pushing, pushing, pushing and saying, ‘This is our year.’ So, we are getting ready to leave the gym and I walk in the gym and (Nelson-Ododa) is in a tye-dye snuggie with the hood on and bear ears on the top.”
Nelson-Ododa wasn’t simply posing inside the undersized snuggie that went down to her knees. Instead, she was shooting 3-pointers and running around the gym, much to the delight of her teammates.
Nelson-Ododa made her practical jokes a tradition to take the edge off her teammates. Prior to the Elite Eight in the state tournament, when the team was at a shopping mall, Nelson-Ododa stuffed herself into a kiddie-car. Her coach had to snap a picture to send to Nelson-Ododa’s parents to show them how the team’s best player was preparing.
“That was just a little tradition thing that we did,” Nelson-Ododa said. “I don’t know if I’m going to do it up here or not. But it was just something fun that we did.”
That isn’t the only superstition that Nelson-Ododa partakes in. She still chews a certain amount of gum and puts her uniform on in a particular way. To get her blood pumping before a game, she listens to a variety of rap music.
The forward comes from an athletic family. Her father played basketball for the Kenyan National Team and her brother, Alonzo, currently plays in the NBA G-League. Nelson-Ododa began practicing against her brother at a young age. Now, he offers his college experience to help her since he is recovering from an injury.
“He’s there to help me in the gym whenever I go home,” Nelson-Ododa said. “He’s been through the whole college experience. So, just to hear from him and know what it’s like, it really helps.”
So far at UConn, Nelson-Ododa has experienced the ups and downs that accompany being a freshman under Hall of Fame head coach Geno Auriemma. She currently averages 5.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in 13 minutes per game. Seniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier have been there for the freshmen, constantly giving them advice on how to handle the pressure of playing at UConn and how to get even better as a player.
“I like what I see from them,” Samuelson said of Nelson-Ododa and fellow freshman Christyn Williams. “I’m going to continue to support them and hopefully get them through and get them to help this team as much as they can.”
Nelson-Ododa credits the upperclassmen with helping her feel comfortable at UConn.
“Everybody helps each other out so whenever I have questions or I am not sure about something, they are always there to give us good input,” Nelson-Ododa said.
UConn women’s basketball has a reputation for extremely difficult practices with Auriemma at the helm. But for Nelson-Ododa, they’ve also been fun.
“Every day is a learning process,” Nelson-Ododa said. “So, each day I hope to get better at something and all the coaches keep pushing me every single day.”
Garren said she still talks to Nelson-Ododa on FaceTime all the time. Nelson-Ododa has talked with her former coach about practice and has never had a “break down moment.” The Georgia native is still very much a part of her high school team.
She still gives her former teammates advice about basketball and talks to them as if she never left.
As for being a terrific basketball player, her high school coach knew Nelson-Ododa had those qualities at a young age.
“Usually a lot of the taller kids, they can’t get up and down the court,” Garren said. “But her skill level around the rim and just her fine touch. She had mechanics at 14 that I have not seen in 18-year-olds I’ve coached before.”
As part of her growth, Nelson-Ododa would travel with Garren to south Georgia to train with WNBA player Kelley Cain. She credits this experience with making her a more physical player.
“I was training with (Cain) for at least a month-and-a-half,” Nelson-Ododa said. “She was definitely bigger than me, definitely stronger than me. So, she pushed me every single day and that really helped me.”
Nelson-Ododa is the tallest player on the team at 6-foot-5 and the Huskies will need her to step up as the season progresses. Auriemma said that she plays a pivotal role on the UConn bench, and she proved against a top-notch opponent in Notre Dame. The freshman played 16 valuable minutes consisting of five points, five rebounds and a thunderous block on Marina Mabrey.
“We need Olivia to get really good,” Auriemma said. “So, the more minutes that she spends on the court, the more things that she gets herself involved in, the better we are going to be down the road. She gives us a dimension that obviously we don’t have.”
Nelson-Ododa could have picked to attend Florida State, Duke or her home-town school Georgia where she had season tickets as a child. However, she chose UConn for one particular reason.
“It’s the culture that’s here,” Nelson-Ododa said. “Definitely the program and just the history of it and of course the coaching staff. All of that played a huge part in why I came here.”
Nelson-Ododa’s goals at UConn include having her name on banners, winning championships and learning from her coaches. Garren said she will accomplish all of it and more.
“She can accomplish whatever she wants,” Garren said. “Honestly, I think if she wants some rings, that is something she can help the team accomplish. If she wants USA ball, she can. If she wants professional ball, she can. Olivia is just such a special kid who wants things and she’s willing to do the work to get there. Whatever she puts her mind to, she will make sure it happens.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.