women’s basketball It’s ‘do-or-die’ time

March 20, 2019 GMT

STORRS — The margin for error in the NCAA Tournament is so slim that a single loose ball can spell the difference between a team advancing and heading home. That holds true for everyone, including UConn, which has defied the odds by reaching the Final Four 11 straight years.

“Every little loose ball, every block out, a pass to get a guy open, catch and make a layup — all these little things that just require some concentration — in the middle of January in a road game, (it’s) ‘My bad,’ ” head coach Geno Auriemma said Monday. “In March, ‘Sorry guys, I just cost us the season.’ ”

While the Huskies, seeded second in the Albany Regional with a record of 31-2, seem positioned to make another deep run, Auriemma isn’t taking any chances with how he’s approaching the tournament. That includes the handling of his superstar guard Katie Lou Samuelson, who has missed more than two weeks with a back injury.

Auriemma was asked Monday whether he would consider holding Samuelson out of Friday’s first-round game against No. 15 Towson (6:30 p.m.). After all, the 11-time national champions are heavy favorites on their home floor.

The short and long response? No.

“Did you see our first half against South Florida?,” Auriemma asked, referring to the regular-season finale, where the Huskies overcame a 29-25 halftime deficit to win by 10 without Samuelson. “We can’t afford to sit anybody for any game. We’re not sitting anybody for any game in the NCAA Tournament. I’m calling up some of my former players and asking them if they’re available. I may even get Megan (Culmo, SNY’s color analyst) in the game.

“We’re not sitting anybody out for any game. Lou would strangle me if I tried to do that.”

Samuelson, the Huskies’ second-leading scorer at 18.9 points per game and their top 3-point shooter, hasn’t practiced much since injuring her back in a collision March 2 against Houston. The Huskies went 4-0 in her absence, including winning the American Athletic Conference Tournament.

“I know that I’m going to play this weekend,” Samuelson said without hesitation.

And it appears that, like her teammates, she’ll do so carrying a chip on her shoulder after the NCAA selection committee surprisingly placed ACC runner-up Louisville (29-3) ahead of UConn in Albany. It’s the first time since 2006 that the Huskies are not a No. 1 seed.

Samuelson was somewhat dismissive of the bracket talk after the 64-team field was mistakenly leaked early by ESPN, saying the Huskies “didn’t make the decisions, the committee did.” She was a bit more outspoken hours later on social media, posting an image on an Instagram story that seemingly referenced her displeasure over the seeding. It was also shared by teammate Napheesa Collier.

For Samuelson and Collier, two of the top five scorers in UConn’s rich history, this NCAA Tournament marks the final chapter in a pair of legendary careers.

“This is our last go-round,” Samuelson said. “It’s understanding that this is kind of it. It’s do-or-die right now. You don’t get to go to the next game unless you win the first one.

“Making sure we take care of business on Friday, that’s our biggest concern right now.”

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour