UNCASVILLE — The UConn women’s basketball team knew the American Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Napheesa Collier would show up. And she did - scoring 37 points and snagging 13 rebounds. However, UConn was not totally convinced who else would step up in Samuelson’s absence.
Freshman Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who was making her second-consecutive start, answered that question decidedly. Though it is hard to fully replace a player who averages nearly 19 points and seven rebounds.
“We want that from (Nelson-Ododa),” Megan Walker said. “It’s good (because) now she has the opportunity to show what she can do. We want her to do that every night for us.”
What exactly did Nelson-Ododa do for the No.1 seeded Huskies? She controlled the paint defensively by blocking five shots and out-muscling ECU for a carer-high 17 rebounds. She established her shot-blocking early, when she swatted away the first shot of the game for the Pirates on a layup attempt by Alex Frazier.
“I was just really trying to contribute as much as I could,” Nelson-Ododa said of her effort. “Coach has emphasized getting rebounds and blocks while I’m out there.”
Samuelson, who is out for the American Conference tournament with back spasms, was a vocal presence for UConn. The senior was constantly talking to her teammates during the game and even challenged Nelson-Ododa to ramp it up in the second half.
“I vocalize things I see, do whatever I can to help people out,” Samuelson said of how she was able to contribute despite not being able to play. “But when it comes down to it, they got to take care of business and I’m just there to kind of adjust things if I can.”
When Nelson-Ododa is blocking and changing the opponent’s shots, it allows the Huskies to play with more of an edge on both ends of the floor.
“We can be more aggressive,” Samuelson said of what Nelson-Ododa’s shot-blocking allows UConn to do. “We can get up on people because if they get by us, we know we have someone in the back that’s there to contest every shot or at least alter the shots that people get. That makes it easier for us to get out in transition and play the way we did in the second half.”
The perfect example of Nelson-Ododa’s shot-blocking translating into easy offense came in the first two minutes of the third quarter. The 6-foot-4 freshman stuffed a shot by Salita Greene, which Williams gathered and passed to Collier, who ran the length of the floor and finished for an easy layup to give UConn the 52-39 lead, momentum and thunderous ovation from the Mohegan Sun crowd.
Walker said the team must find a way to play the first half as they have been able to do in the second half. UConn (29-2, 17-0 The American) outscored ECU (16-15, 6-10 The American) 46-26 in the second half before inevitably winning 92-65.
“We just came out slow, sluggish,” Walker said. “We didn’t have the same effort that we had in the second half. I feel like we picked it up in the second half and it showed on offense and defense.”
Walker had a strong performance in her own right. During the first half, she only scored eight points and shot 0-for-3 from beyond the arc. However, in the second half, Walker reeled in six more rebounds and scored six more points to finish with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
Williams was another Husky who started the game slow like most of the team, but the second half was a different story for her and UConn. The reason for Williams’ success may have stemmed from something her head coach Geno Auriemma told her.
“We did make one change during one timeout in the second half early on,” Auriemma said. “I said, ‘Phees, listen when Christyn throws you the ball and runs off of you for a hand off, give it to her. And then when you take the ball from (Collier), drive it to the rim and I don’t care what happens after that.’ I didn’t realize it was going to be that easy.”
Williams failed to score a point in the first half, but once she decided to attack the rim with ferocity, she dominated. The guard finished with 16 points, six assists and four rebounds.
The play of the game for Williams came halfway through the fourth quarter when she stole the ball and dribbled the length of the court before throwing a nifty behind-the-back pass to Crystal Dangerfield on a breakaway layup that gave the Huskies the 81-58 lead.
“We don’t want to put all that pressure on (Collier),” Walker said. “Me, Christyn, (Nelson-Ododa) and Crystal are going to do our job, we are going to do our part and come out with a win.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.