STORRS – When two of the five best college basketball teams in the nation meet, the outcome usually comes down to the performance of one or two key players.
In the case of Monday night’s matchup between the No. 1-ranked UConn women’s basketball team and the No. 4 Louisville Cardinals, the outcome – a 69-58 victory in favor of the Huskies – was largely decided by the preeminent play of one Katie Lou Samuelson.
Samuelson was easily the best player on the court Monday night, finishing with a game-high 26 points on 10-17 shooting from the field (4-9 from 3-point range) along with three rebounds and three assists in 40 minutes. There was no doubt about it, Samuelson’s play helped give the Huskies a huge lead early on and is primarily what put the Cardinals chances at a road win to bed.
“(The gameplan) was to see how many open shots we could give her,” Louisville head coach Jeff Walz joked. “She got a couple in transition, she hit a couple big time shots that you tip your hat to her… She was the one that we didn’t do as good of a job defensively as I would’ve like to have done and what she does is she’ll take advantage of it.”
Walz counterpart at UConn, head coach Geno Auriemma, said Samuelson has just looked locked in for the last several days in the build up to the game.
“She’s got it going right now,” Auriemma said. “She’s been like that at practice, she was like that this morning. She’s just had this feeling and this look when I talked to her that today was gonna be a really good day for her. She knew it, and that’s a good feeling when a kid knows she’s gonna play great tonight.”
Star Louisville guard Asia Durr said Samuelson was a special player because of her penchant to get in that “locked-in mode.”
“(Samuelson) has always been in that mode, great players take advantage of that,” Durr said. “They always wanna score, they wanna make plays, so she did a great job of doing that tonight. When we had mental breakdowns, she dumped it down to her post players instead of taking a shot. That’s what great players do, they feel the game out and then make great plays.”
Samuelson’s game impact stretched far beyond her ability to make shots. The junior has developed her game a great deal since she was just a sweet-shooting freshman, a simple role player behind some of the best players in program history.
“I miss freshman year sometimes. All I had to do was stand in the corner and make threes ‘cause, you know, Stewie, Mo and Tuck kind of did all the other work,” Samuelson said. “But each year as we’ve progressed and as teams have started to play me harder, I think I’ve had no choice but to either expand my game, try to be able to do more or get taken out.”
Samuelson has added several facets to her game over the last few years to make herself a better player, as well as a better teammate. And expand her game she has. Even beyond her scoring ability, Lou’s ability to find open teammates and make the extra pass has improved, too.
“I think this year I’ve tried to do as much as I can in impacting the game one way or the other,” Samuelson said. “I think one of the biggest things is it’s not even my shooting, you know my passing has gotten a lot better and being able to make the right passes and not (turn the ball over).”
Samuelson also reached a special milestone Monday night with her last bucket of the first quarter, a layup to give the Huskies a 24-4 lead. On that play, she scored her 1,500th and 1,501st career points. The Huntington Beach, California native reached the 1,500-point milestone in just 94 games, the fifth-fastest player to do so in program history. Only Maya Moore, Kerry Bascom, Breanna Stewart and Rebecca Lobo hit the 1,500-point mark in fewer games.
“It’s awesome (to be in that kind of company), it’s really cool,” Samuelson said. “I’m excited I got the opportunity tonight and I think I’m mostly excited for the way we played tonight and how great of a win it was.”
Samuelson will get her next opportunity to continue her climb up the UConn scoring charts on Sunday Feb. 18 when the Huskies take on the Temple Owls at the XL Center.
Chris Hanna is the associate sports editor for The Daily Campus, covering women’s basketball. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @realchrishanna.