As the legendary Chicago White Sox commentator Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson would say, call your sons, call your daughters, call your friends, call your neighbors because senior Katie Lou Samuelson is back, healthy and ready for the NCAA tournament.
“We started out a little rocky going against East Carolina,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said of the team’s initial adjustment without Samuelson. “But we got better every day, and we did get some great contributions from our young players, and with Lou back in the lineup, I think we’re better equipped to deal with some things that might happen that maybe we weren’t as equipped to deal with before that happened.
“So I do think, in theory, we’re a much better team today than we were when we played Central Florida two weeks ago.”
Samuelson said she is excited to get back out on the court once again, before the curtain closes on her UConn career.
“It’s pretty rough to be sitting out at the end of your senior year, but I’m very lucky to be getting another chance to play,” Samuelson said. “It could always be worse. So, for me I’m happy to get the opportunity to be playing again. I’m definitely excited to be playing again at Gampel for Phee and I, for hopefully two more games here.”
UConn (31-2, 16-0 The American) enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 2 seed, which is the first time since 2006 that they are not a No. 1 seed, in the Albany Region. They will take on No. 15 Towson (20-12, 11-7 CAA) for the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament.
“We knew coming in that it was a field of 64 and we knew that there were 64 of the top teams of the country,” Towson head coach Diane Richardson said. “So the fact that we got Connecticut, a history program…we knew we were going to get some history whoever we played since this is our first time. It’s an honor of course for us to be able to play and be able to play in the tournament. We are going to go ahead and set ourselves up for some more history.”
Senior Napheesa Collier said that while she doesn’t agree with UConn being a 2-seed, the team’s preparation has not changed.
“Obviously, we don’t agree with it, but there is nothing we can do about it,” Collier said. “I think it does put a little more of a fire under us just because like I said we don’t agree with it and we just want to prove to everyone that we should’ve been there and that we can be. We are going to come out swinging.”
While Collier has dominated the competition this season, averaging 20.9 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, the freshmen have emerged as the year has gone on. Especially in Samuelson’s absence.
“I would have much rather been on the court, but for me seeing what we were able to do as a team and to see (what) those individuals were able to do,” Samuelson said. “They made an impact and for them to have that confidence to know when they come in that they can make that impact, it’s huge for us going into the tournament.”
Olivia Nelson-Ododa provided the Huskies with a rim protector, shot blocker and rebounder. During the team’s first game of the AAC tournament against ECU, Nelson-Ododa reeled in 17 rebounds and swatted away five shots. If she can continue that, even to a lesser-scale, UConn will be in good shape.
Christyn Williams flashed some explosiveness during the AAC tournament, alongside point guard Crystal Dangerfield. She was able to get into the lane with ease, while scoring double-digits during each game.
Megan Walker not only brought another level of physicality to the table, but she was able to knock down jump shots and back down in the low post. The sophomore erupted for 24 points in the conference tournament semifinals against USF.
With the freshmen getting their first taste of the NCAA tournament tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Gampel Pavilion, Collier said they prepared them with a tough environment in practice.
“Crazy things happen in March, it’s like a magical time,” Collier said. “You have to know that you prepared as well as you could and harder than you thought you could, to be ready for the tournament. We just try to tell them that and try to help them navigate through that, (today) we will see.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.