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Collier looks to step up as Huskies take on Duquesne in second round NCAA action in Storrs.

POSTED March 21, 2016
BY Timothy W. Gaffney
Twitter: @TimothyGaffney

TORRINGTON: Game two in their quest for a fourth consecutive national championship gets underway tonight in Storrs as the top ranked UConn women take on the ninth seed, Duquesne at 9 p.m. in a second round NCAA Tournament contest.

Their opener against Robert Morris was over before the opening tip (felt like that) as the Huskies ran out to a ridiculous 41-4 lead after one on their way to a 101-49 final.

That’s 70 in a row now with no letting up in sight. If anything, the view to the promise land is getting clearer by the day.

Next up, the Dukes from Duquesne (who beat up on Seton Hall in their opener by a 97-76 final) in the last game at Gampel for seniors Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and possibly Morgan Tuck who may choose to skip her fifth year by declaring for the WNBA draft.

How big is the task for the Dukes?

Start at the top of Mount Everest and work your way down, with shorts on, no coat and no water.

Survive all that and you may have a shot at knocking off a Huskies team that is supremely focused on that four-peat possibility.

Getting strong, dominating efforts from his big three is never a problem for head coach Geno Auriemma but getting bigger and better contributions from his younger players is going to be key during what they hope will be that ultimate prize of doing something even UConn has never done.

Of all the players coming off the bench, freshman Naphessa Collier is showing why the coaching staff has more and more faith in what she can bring to the table during the tournament and giving them even more options to throw at their opponents.

“I go into every game thinking we’ve got the five players that start, and then we either have six or seven that are easy in the rotation, with Gabby (Williams) being six.” Auriemma said. “Today (Saturday) Gabby really get going, and Napheesa came in and played really well. Between the two of them, we just need one of them to come off the bench and give us something. If it is Gabby great, and then Napheesa adds to that. If it is Napheesa and Gabby adds to that, great. We just need that.”

Both Williams and Collier as being asked to fill the sixth man role for the Huskies and each is embracing the role.

“We are both trying to show Coach that he can trust is in game situation.” Collier said. “Either one of us can do it.”

Getting her first tournament start under one belt is huge for any freshman and Collier thought she showed her coaches something positive on Saturday.

“It was good for me to play the way I did in the first game, because we are always trying to prove to him that we can handle these situations,” Collier said. “So in practice and then in this last game I have been trying to prove to him that I can handle it.”

Against Robert Morris, Collier played 21 minutes, scoring 14 points on 6 of 11 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds, a confidence builder if there ever was one.

What is the biggest challenge when it comes to playing at this level at this time of the year for Collier?

“I think confidence and knowing what you are supposed to be doing at this level is the biggest part of the game.” Collier said. “Everyone is talented at this level. Everyone is athletic in college. So the aspect of being confident and knowing what you are doing is what separates people.”

Every freshman goes through a certain adjustment period when they leave the comfort of their high school days and each takes their own amount of time to find themselves. Collier, who at times was the second player off the bench after Williams this season, is starting to find her way.

“Everyone on this team was the best person on their team in high school,” Collier said. “Having that adjustment was definitely different. There is always going to be a learning curve when you go up to the next level, and I think we are finally getting it. I think the biggest thing was just mentally being tuned in all the time. In high school, you can really take breaks. It is so much different than college, because it a whole new intensity level here. They expect us to go 100 percent from the very beginning, so we just build good habits in practice.”  

Auriemma has seen bits and pieces of what Collier can become and is looking forward to the day everything comes together for her.

“Naphessa is a lot better than what she has shown.” Auriemma said. “She has shown that she can do a lot of things. She can make a three. She can score inside. She can make it to the basket. She can make free throws. She rebounds the ball. She just needs that self confidence that comes from playing.”

How does the first year player see herself helping during the tournament?

“I am definitely trying to be the spark off the bench by getting rebounds and getting steals.” Collier said. “I really concentrate on trying to make the hustle plays when I get into the game. It is just effort. If my shots aren’t falling, at least I can work as hard as I can to get the other stuff.”

A much larger role awaits Coller in her sophomore year when the Huskie will need her far more than they do now but getting her game up to the level expected at UConn is crucial and there is no time like the present.

Five more wins…..

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