The round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament has typically ended in blowout fashion for UConn, but that was not the case Sunday night.
“It’s the NCAA Tournament. Whether it’s the Men’s NCAA Tournament or the Women’s NCAA Tournament,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “You watch enough basketball this past weekend and teams that you think are supposed to blow out the other team, doesn’t always work out that way. It’s the NCAA’s. It’s not supposed to be easy.”
After Buffalo’s Summer Hemphill stole the ball from Crystal Dangerfield and passed to Autumn Jones for a layup to bring the score to 75-64 with 6:46 left in the game, Auriemma called a timeout.
Senior Napheesa Collier said that, as one of the leaders of the team, she had to make sure everyone stayed positive and stuck to the game plan.
“When stuff like that happens, we tend to get sped up and that is when our turnovers come or our bad shots or something like that,” Collier said. “So we just let the team know that we got this. We need to slow down and take our time and take good shots.”
Once the team came out of the timeout, all 6,390 fans in Gampel Pavilion were on their feet, cheering as loud as possible. Collier said the team fed off the crowd’s energy, and she even knows who started to get the crowd involved.
“They support us through everything no matter the weather or who we are playing and they knew that we needed that little extra boost and they got on their feet,” Collier said. “[Mrs. Auriemma] said that she started it, so I’ll give her credit for it. It definitely gave us an energy boost and it was just such a great environment.”
Collier again showed she can be a go-to player for the Huskies when she pretty much put the game out of reach with a layup at 2:16 in the fourth quarter to push the UConn lead back to 10.
The next offensive possession for Buffalo, Courtney Wilkins missed a 3-pointer and Collier snagged the rebound. The Huskies just had to make sure they did not make any head-scratching plays after that, which they accomplished.
Despite UConn narrowly defeating Buffalo 84-72 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen, the game had another significant meaning to seniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Collier: It was their last ever game in Gampel.
Samuelson and Collier’s first game at Gampel was against Notre Dame on Dec. 5, 2015. Samuelson scored 13 points in 23 minutes, and Collier, the team’s current leading scorer, played 10 minutes and scored zero points. My, how times have changed.
However, the one constant has been winning. Over their four years as UConn Huskies, the senior duo never lost a game at Gampel Pavilion out of the 34 played there. A big reason for that is there prolific scoring abilities. They are the highest-scoring pair of classmates of UConn history, with 4,636 points.
Although Collier has had a spectacular season, averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, this game Sunday night might have been her most impressive game — considering the circumstances. The forward finished the evening with 27 points, 16 rebounds, eight assists and three blocked shots.
Samuelson, who played in her first full game since returning from her back injury sustained on March 2, scored 17 points and grabbed nine rebounds, five of which were offensive.
“I feel good,” Samuelson said. “It was good for me to play in a game this physical now I’m going to be good going forward. I’ll probably be a little sore, but other than that I’m good.”
Over their remarkable careers, they won a national championship their freshman seasons, reached the Final Four the last two seasons and have a 143-4 record. While they are proud of their accomplishments, that is all in the rearview mirror. The two seniors said that they are focused on helping their team win each game in front of them.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen as freshmen and the way it’s all kind of played out, the way we have been next to each other every step of the way, it’s been a really fun experience and I’m glad that we are still rolling on,” Samuelson said. “We still have business to take care of.”
Michael Logan is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.