TAMPA — When the game clock reached double zeros, buzzer sounded and the score had Notre Dame at 81, UConn at 76, it marked the official end of the astounding careers of seniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier.
Over their four years in Storrs, the duo only lost five games, with three coming during the Final Four.
“We said that in the locker room,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “It’s not apparent sometimes while you’re teammates with Lou and Napheesa, it’s not apparent until after they’re gone, how much they did for you, how much they contributed to your success, how much you’re going to miss their presence every single day, on the court, off the court, doesn’t matter.”
Before the season began, Auriemma said that Collier and Samuelson had to fill the void that Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams left behind when they graduated. What he was looking for was not necessarily more offense or defense, but it was leadership.
Collier and Samuelson delivered on that challenge.
Freshmen Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams, who both played a significant part in the season, said they learned so much from the seniors.
“Just how to be a leader and to always work hard,” Williams said on what Collier and Samuelson taught her. “They do it every day in practice. Off the court they have helped me and Liv throughout our freshman year. Hopefully when I’m a senior, I can have the same characteristics as them.”
Collier said becoming more vocal did not come easy, but she knew she must adapt because that is what the team needed from her.
“We definitely had to step outside of our comfort zone, especially me because I like to lead by example more than being a vocal leader,” Collier said. “But I knew that was what my team needed this year. That’s what I tried to do and we were both put into weird positions because we weren’t used to being the seniors on the team.
“… I think we really embraced that role and did as best we could for our team to be, lead by example and be as vocal as we could and just do as much as we could for the team.”
Samuelson started the game off slow, failing to score a point in the first half, but she was able to percolate in the second half as she got the Huskies offense going. With UConn down two points with under two minutes to go in the third quarter, Samuelson buried a 3-pointer to put the Huskies up 48-47.
Samuelson was able to knock down another 3-pointer just a minute later to give the Huskies the 51-49 lead. The crowd began to sing, “LOUUUU.” Collier said when Samuelson gets going, it is a thing of beauty.
“When Lou gets hot, she is really hot,” Collier said. “And to get big plays like that, it was really what got us that lead in the first place.”
UConn’s momentum didn’t stop there. After a Collier layup, UConn was up 64-55 with just under eight minutes left to play. The momentum was completely in the Huskies’ favor.
But the Fighting Irish would not go away.
Senior Arike Ogunbowale led her team back, scoring 21 of her 23 points in the second half.
“(Ogunbowale) still has to make those shots, and she did,” Auriemma said. “She’s an almost impossible matchup one-on-one, you know. We knew that going in. We knew that they were going to score X-number of points. We knew we had to make shots, and we didn’t.”
Junior point guard Crystal Dangerfield recalled a play where she went for a steal, but Ogunbowale was able to collect the ball and sink a 3-pointer. Dangerfield said the play will “haunt” her.
Dangerfield said she felt like she owed it to the seniors, to help them win a national championship in their final season.
“We had two seniors that felt like (they) should have gone out with a championship,” Dangerfield said, fighting back tears. “We had an entire team that invested a lot into the season. We went through the trenches really. We came up and then we started playing some great basketball to get ourselves all the way to the Final Four and this time it really felt different. We just fell short again.”
Dangerfield will most likely be the lone starting senior on the team next year and she said that what Samuelson and Collier taught her, is invaluable.
“Even in the moments that they maybe didn’t want to or maybe didn’t feel their best, they still did it,” Dangerfield said. “They still did it for us and it just shows how great people they are, how much they love this program, how much they put into this program and it’s something that you can’t take for granted, but you can’t replace that.
“They are great players, but they are even better people. I’m happy to see them go onto the next level because they are going to kill it. But I just think they deserved a championship.”
While UConn had to say goodbye to two of the greatest players ever to wear a UConn uniform, the future is bright. Rising sophomores Williams and Nelson-Ododa are extremely talented and gained tremendous experience this season.
Nelson-Ododa was not a significant factor to begin the season, but she played meaningful minutes in the Final Four. Her presence underneath the basket proved to be a crucial piece to UConn. In her 15 minutes against Notre Dame, she scored four points, grabbed five rebounds and blocked a shot.
While Collier said it is extremely disappointing to end the season in the Final Four, she could not be more proud of the team.
“How hard we fought and how much adversity we had to get through to get here,” Collier said of what made her appreciative of the way the season went. “I’m so proud of this team and everything we did this season. We fought really hard. Nothing came easy for us. It didn’t end the way that we wanted, but I’m proud of everything we did.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.