UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said his team may have gotten the hardest task of any team in the country, having to play No. 6 seed UCLA in the Sweet 16 on Friday at 7 p.m.
“We may have gotten the worst draw of any team in the country, getting UCLA right about now, as well as they’re playing,” Auriemma said of the surging Bruins. “All the great things that they’ve been able to do. It’s not the same team I saw in St. Thomas earlier this year. (Cori Close has) done a phenomenal job with this group. So we’ve got our hands full tomorrow night.”
UCLA sophomore Michaela Onyenwere said that Auriemma’s compliments mean a lot to her, considering what he has been able to accomplish at UConn.
“I think that, yeah, we’ve been working really hard, and we’ve been competing together for a really long time,” Onyenwere said. “We didn’t start off the best, and I know it’s super hard to go through that with a young and new team. We’ve come a long way. I’m just proud of our team and our growth, and I think that kind of is a testament to how hard we’ve worked over the course of this season.”
While the Huskies did not play the Bruins on the court during the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, they watched the Bruins drop all three games. North Carolina blew them out 83-49, Kentucky outlasted them 75-74 in overtime and an injury-plagued USF team beat the Bruins 60-56.
Since Jan. 25, UCLA has a 13-3 record, including knocking No. 3 seed Maryland out of the NCAA Tournament in College Park, Maryland. Onyenwere exploded for a career-high 30 points. The sophomore’s improvement as the season has gone on has helped her team indefinitely. In her freshman season, she averaged 6.9 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. Now, Onyenwere accounts for 18.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game.
“I think that’s the big difference, that their young players have gotten progressively better each and every game this year,” Auriemma said. “When you watch them on film now, they don’t seem to have missed a beat. You talk about not having their two seniors from last year — I don’t know. When I watch them play, their point guard right now looks a lot like Jordin Canada. And I watch their big guys, and they look a lot like Monique Billings. In some ways, they may even pose more of a problem.”
UConn senior Katie Lou Samuelson said the team must combat UCLA’s ferocity.
“I think they’re just super aggressive and one of the best rebounding teams in the country,” Samuelson said. “For us, that’s something we’ve struggled with, and so that’s something we’ve really got to focus and be ready for.”
Napheesa Collier is the team’s leader for points (21.1) and rebounds (10.7). However, Samuelson is averaging the most rebounds (6.7) in a season, throughout her career at UConn. She will undoubtedly be asked to help Collier out in the paint.
Since UCLA rebounds well from the guard position, Christyn Williams and Crystal Dangerfield will have to work to keep UCLA’s guards out on the perimeter. Williams, who stands at 5-foot-11, averages 3.1 rebounds, while Dangerfield averages 3.3 per game.
Close said her team must find a way to out rebound UConn.
“If we get the same amount of possessions that UConn does, we’ll lose,” Close said. “I think that the reality is they are so fluid, and they take really high percentage shots. They know each other really well. That’s one of the things I admire most about their program over the years is just the fluidity of their offense. They don’t run plays.
“They have playmakers out of a fluid system, and (Auriemma’s) taught them to be —
to read and react so well, which I really admire. I don’t want to have a program where we’re like robots running from place to place.”
With two freshmen (Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa) on UConn receiving significant minutes, Samuelson said the duo must focus on what they do well in order for the team to win and not worry about the bright lights.
“I think the biggest thing is just not putting too much on (the freshmen) and not giving them too many things to worry about,” Samuelson said. “Just breaking it down, doing what they know they can do every day in practice. As soon as they know that, Phee (Collier) and I tell them we’ve got their backs for anything that happens during the game. We can control that. So as long as they’re putting forward their best effort and what they’re great at, we’ll be okay.”
Collier said she is looking forward to playing close to Connecticut and expects to see many UConn fans in the stands.
“Our fans are amazing, and I have no doubt that they’ll probably make the trip up here,” Collier said. “So just being here again, especially it being our last time, it is really special. We’re just so grateful to have this opportunity, and we’re really excited for the game.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.