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Youth Being Served as Collier, Samuelson Doing Their Part For UConn By Rich Elliott

POSTED April 01, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

INDIANAPOLIS – There was never any doubt that seniors Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck would be the leaders for the UConn women’s basketball during this NCAA tournament march. Each of them can carry the Huskies individually. When all three of them are playing at their best opponents have only a slim chance of winning.

However, as well as Jefferson, Stewart and Tuck have performed in positioning No. 1 UConn within two wins of earning a record fourth straight national championship, they have had help on the way to reaching the Final Four at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Freshmen Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson have played well in a supporting role, notably in Monday’s 86-65 win over Texas in the Bridgeport regional final.

Samuelson and Collier combined for 18 points and 10 rebounds in 44 minutes. Heading into Sunday’s NCAA national semifinal against Oregon State (6 p.m.; ESPN), they have provided the Huskies with what they have needed outside of the Big Three in their first experience in this high-profile setting.

``You have to play through the first five minutes,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``Stewie did too. We didn’t make the shots that we were making in the past. And the game’s a little more physical, and you have to run harder back on defense, and you have to cut harder and every box out becomes more difficult. And a lot of times when you’re a freshman that’s the first time that it hits you that this isn't January and we're going to go to practice and work on this. No. But the really good ones, they regroup and they summon up whatever they have to summon up to be good. And Lou and Napheesa are terrific talents, and they’re tough kids. I think what they did (Monday) is going to be great for them for (this) weekend.’’

Collier finished with nine points and four rebounds in 12 minutes off the bench against the Longhorns. Samuelson had nine points, six rebounds and one block in 32 minutes.

Collier’s overall numbers were solid. Yet, it was the impact that she made in the second quarter that truly stood out.

``Napheesa did amazing,” Tuck said. “She was sitting on the bench and wasn’t warm or anything and came in and made a lot of plays for us. When she does that it just makes our team so much better.”

Gabby Williams was already on the bench with two fouls. Tuck was forced to the bench with 6:25 left in the first half after picking up two fouls in a span of 45 seconds. The Huskies led 30-25 when Collier entered the game for the first time.

Collier produced seven points, four rebounds and one assist as UConn (36-0) ended the half with a 16-6 run.

``I wasn’t really feeling nervous,” Collier said. ``I knew Gabby had two fouls and Morgan had two fouls. So I really had to come in, play smart, get rebounds and help the team. It’s always something that I’ve done so I think it gets me going if I come in and right away get a couple rebounds.’’  

A 3-pointer by Samuelson triggered UConn’s second-quarter run.

``We like the kid, Napheesa,’’ Auriemma said. ``I think if you asked her, name a play that Connecticut runs, she might say Bye Bye Birdie or something. She’s young and she knows one thing … `If we shoot it, I’m going to go offensive rebound. If there's a lane open, I’m going to drive it to the rim.’ Those are the two things that she knows that she can do.

``At one point when both freshmen were in and Morgan was on the bench we made a point to say that you’re playing with the two best players in the country out there, relax and just enjoy it. Because I could tell that there was a little bit of anxiety in the freshmen. Just do what you’re good at. And the two of them, both Lou and Napheesa, were really, really good (Monday). Napheesa did exactly what I would expect her to do.’’

Said Stewart: ``The freshmen made huge contributions, and I think that Coach challenged them at the TV timeout in the second quarter. They responded. That’s what we do here. When Coach challenges us, we respond. For them to respond the way they did was really important because it’s not going to get any easier as we go forward. We’re going to need them down the road.’’

Collier is averaging 9.5 points (55.6  FG) in 15.0 minutes through the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament. She averaged 6.5 points (51.6 FG) in 17.6 minutes through the first 32 games this season.

Samuelson is averaging 13.8 points (57.1 FG; 45.0 3-pointers) and 3.8 rebounds in 26.8 minutes in the tournament. She had been averaging 10.2 points (48.4 FG; 38.6 3-pointers) and 3.3 rebounds in 23.3 minutes through the first 32 games.

``I think it says what great players they are,’’ Tuck said. ``They’re not playing like typical freshmen would. They’re going to be nervous this weekend, but I’m sure once they get going they’ll be fine.’’

Collier and Samuelson have helped the Huskies reach the Final Four for a record ninth straight season and the 17th time in program history. It they continue their production in what could be two more games the chance is strong that they will be cutting down the nets following UConn’s latest historical accomplishment.

``It’s super exciting,’’ Samuelson said. ``I’m really happy about it. I think this team has worked really hard all season. I know I have put a lot of work in and gone through a lot of ups and downs emotionally and physically. So to be able to play in a Final Four is really a dream come true.’’

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