If you put on the UConn-USF game at about 4:30 p.m., you may have missed too much.
The UConn women’s basketball team did not come out sluggish or sloppy against USF during its 81-45 win, as they did against ECU the day before. No, the Huskies came out determined to squash the narrative that they could not succeed without senior-standout Katie Lou Samuelson.
“We knew we had to come out with a different mindset than yesterday and our past couple of games,” Napheesa Collier said. “I think we were just really focused from the beginning and we knew that we had to handle business today.”
Collier, the American Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, started off the Huskies offense early, knocking down the team’s first points on a mid-range jumper. Elisa Pinzan was able to tie the score at 2 with a layup off the glass, but then it was all Huskies as they finished the first quarter on a ferocious 17-3 run.
No. 1 seed UConn (30-2, 17-0 The American) was able to suffocate the No. 5 seed USF (19-15, 7-10 The American) offense, forcing 15 turnovers. UConn then translated those turnovers into 22 points. UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said on Saturday that the team would focus on speeding up the pace against USF, which they were not able to accomplish during the regular season finale against them.
“It might have been the same way last week if we had made some of those shots early on in the game that we didn’t make,” Auriemma said of the team’s execution. “Just because a team doesn’t score, that’s not just because you played great defense, the other guys have to miss. Sometimes you can play pretty good defense and they make them.”
USF hit only one of its first 10 shot attempts during the second quarter and a big reason for that was freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s physical presence. The forward was able to change the complexion of the game by closing out against opposing players and blocking a shot.
“[Nelson-Ododa is] giving us exactly what we need,” Auriemma said of Nelson-Ododa’s growth. “When Lou comes back, I think we’re a better team than we were before Lou got hurt because of what’s happened with Megan [Walker] and [Nelson-Ododa] especially, and Christyn [Williams] has gotten more involved the last two days. It’s not ideal, but they’ve had a chance to do some things that they might not have ordinarily had the chance to do.”
Nelson-Ododa was able to show off her offensive repertoire as well. With 7:48 left in the third quarter, the lanky freshman was able to knock down a jumper. Toward the beginning of the fourth quarter, Nelson-Ododa drove hard to the lane for the and-1 that gave UConn a 75-31 lead.
UConn made the Bulls life on offense especially difficult beyond the 3-point line where they connected on 1-for-15 attempts. Walker said the main reason for that had to do with what they focused on in the scouting report.
“Today we keyed in on who were our shooters that we needed to [guard],” Walker said. “You know, just not letting them get open looks. We wanted to trap certain two-guards, so we eliminated their 3-point shot.”
Auriemma said he is glad the team paid attention to his scouting report.
“I’ve coached some of the best players ever to play college basketball and I got a group of guys that went, ‘you know, I think today we are going to listen to coach Auriemma’s scouting report. That would probably be a good idea,’” Auriemma said. “We’ve played 32 games, so I guess all those games that we won and all those banners, they were still skeptical that I knew what the hell I was doing. I’m glad that we finally convinced them that if [they] just paid attention a little bit, I think we can help [them] be really good.”
Walker established herself as a force during the game, leading the team with 24 points to go with seven rebounds. Her 3-point shot was effective as she connected on 4-for-7 attempts from downtown.
“I hope that this kind of gets [Walker] off and running in the right direction,” Auriemma said. “She’s a really good shooter. I don’t have any doubt that when she has an open 3, there’s a pretty good chance it’s going in. I feel really confident in that. What we need from [Walker] is the other stuff that she’s done.”
Collier helped to control the game despite getting bumped around and double-teamed for portions of the game. The forward made sure the Huskies would not start the second half slow after dominating the opening half. At the 9:13 mark, she pump-faked a 3-point attempt, drove hard to the basket, shot, missed and even then was there to collect the rebound and connect on her second attempt to put the Huskies up 43-17.
The decorated senior surpassed Samuelson for the fourth-most points (2,274) in program history when she connected on her second 3-pointer in the first half to give the Huskies a 33-11 lead.
The American Conference Championship game will take place at 7 p.m. Monday. Although Auriemma was not sure whether UConn would be playing No. 3 seed Cincinnati or No. 2 seed UCF right after UConn’s game, he knew the championship would have a much different blueprint.
“Tomorrow’s game plan is going to be a lot different than today’s because the team we’re playing is a lot different than the team [UConn played] today,” Auriemma said. “They possess different problems than the team today. There are some things that happen in the games, depending on the matchup, that are easier for us to handle and there are some matchups that are not easy to handle and we’re going to struggle. That’s why making shots is so important.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.