Viewpoint Samuelson ready to lead the Huskies
WEST HARTFORD — Thanks to Morgan William and Arike Ogunbowale, they lost their shot at the last two national championships at the final buzzer. And now, save freshman Christyn Williams, few are picking the UConn women to win their 12th NCAA title before the opening buzzer sounds on the 2018-2019 season.
“I can’t imagine we’ll be No. 1, and we shouldn’t be,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said Monday at his Fore the Kids Charity Tournament at Hartford Golf Club. “Notre Dame should be No. 1 and maybe their second team should be No. 2.
“Certainly to us, 1, 2, 3, doesn’t really matter. Some teams can’t handle being No. 1. Some teams it doesn’t bother them. We’ll be all right. I like it.”
The last time the Huskies were not picked No. 1 in either the Associated Press media or ESPN coaches preseason poll was Brittney Griner’s senior year at Baylor in 2012-2013. That’s a long time ago.
Baylor, Louisville, Oregon and UConn could definitely beat Notre Dame’s second team. Yet snark aside, from senior leadership to freshmen development, the Huskies have much work to do with Gabby Williams, Kia Nurse and Azurá Stevens gone.
“The biggest thing about this year is we are down people and kind of overall level,” senior Katie Lou Samuelson said. “Every single team is going to think it’s their time to have a crack at us. That’s something that motivates us.”
Samuelson pointed to 2016-2017, after Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck graduated. Notre Dame was picked No. 1 in the AP preseason poll, although the coaches did have UConn first.
“They were talking about that being a down year and halfway through the year they were talking how UConn just gets better and better,” Samuelson said. “The media sometimes is swayed by what’s happening at the moment.”
True. And sometimes freshmen say the darnedest things.
“We’re going to get that championship,” Christyn Williams said. “People are going to feel UConn. We’re going to win the national championship …
“Mark my words guys, we’re going to get it back.”
In other news, Christyn Williams is expected to be available to the media again in 2021.
UConn isn’t exactly starving for talent. Samuelson, Naphessa Collier and Crystal Dangerfield stand to be All-Americans. Samuelson (2015), Meghan Walker (2017) and Williams (2018) were each No. 1 player in the nation coming out of high school.
Yet beyond freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa the Huskies aren’t exactly bursting with post height, either.
“And I keep telling (Samuelson) all the time the only two players on our team that could guard anybody have graduated,” Auriemma said. “I think by September or October they’ll get sick of hearing it. It has to come from her. If your seniors aren’t willing to lead at that end of the floor, it’s going to be very difficult.”
Samuelson underwent ankle surgery on April 12. She’s walking fine. She’s doing some shooting from her toes. Hopping could start this week. She isn’t allowed to run yet. She is quite a way from playing with contact. What matters is she is ready opening night.
“I think Lou understands what she has to do and there has been in a big change in the way she carries herself and the way she approaches everything,” Auriemma said. “She has been unbelievable.
“When you’ve got seniors that have pretty strong personalities like last year, it’s not easy to assert yourself, but I sense she has taken on a much, much bigger role.”
Samuelson, the team’s leading scorer, took only three shots in the second half in that final loss to Notre Dame, one in the final 10 minutes, none in overtime. Not good.
“I think I could have done a better job demanding the ball in certain situations,” Samuelson said. “Not that I hid, but I don’t think I helped as much as I could have in the end there. This is my last year. No more after this. I’m excited to be in a more demanding role.”
Samuelson went on a riff both interesting and a little vague. She said this year it comes down to actual changes. She said matters were “masked a little” last year.
Asked to be specific, Samuelson said, “From the outside us saying we had problems is probably not what people think and expect to hear. But when it comes down to us and what we think, we had enough problems not to win that last game. So that’s too many in my opinion. We need to figure out where we need to be at the end of the season, the most important part of each year. The last two years we weren’t able to do that.”
Samuelson said this had to be attacked as a group and individually and believes it’s happening.
“I want to make sure I’m accountable at all times,” Samuelson said. “There are a lot of times when I could have played better defensively. Ankle aside, I’m not going to let happen this year.”
Auriemma says the Huskies will go as far as his two seniors, Collier and Samuelson, will take them. He settles back to Katie Lou.
“She did a lot, she knows she has to do more,” Auriemma said. “She’s obviously one of the best shooters in America — not the best. There’s a lot more to the game than that. You look at her last year and you look at her freshman year, it’s incredible the progress she has made. I would expect her to make the same kind of jump going into this season.”
Auriemma says things like Dangerfield hasn’t remotely touched all the things she can do on the court. He says things like Collier needs to expand her game. He says things like Walker can’t be happy with last year. During the summer state of the Huskies address, Auriemma says plenty. Which brings him to Williams and Nelson-Ododa.
“They’re both in the same kind of tremendous shape our freshmen were in last year,” Auriemma said. “Meaning going from the classroom to the dining area is not a problem. The rest of the time not as easy. One of the big differences is these two understand it’s hard. They accept it. They welcome it, where last year’s guys were like, ‘I got this.’ We’d go in the office every day and go these guys are delusional. We’d run and do some tests and half the time we’d have to send out a posse to go find them.”
Williams is powerful. Nelson-Ododa is smooth and not nearly strong enough yet. The two, Auriemma said, remind him a lot of Stefanie Dolson and Bria Hartley their freshman year.
“They better have an impact,” Auriemma said. “I’m not saying we’re going to go into any game and say, ‘It’s on you guys.’ That’s not going to happen. But they didn’t come here to watch and cheer. They came here to play.”
Mark it down, guys. Christyn Williams came to play on the 2018-2019 national champs.