UCONN HOPE

Fo­cus is on opener against Ohio State

Hartford Courant - - Front Page - By Kelli Stacy kstacy@courant.com

Men’s open­ing bas­ket­ball win is OK, but en­ergy is high.

UConn may have lost in back-to­back Fi­nal Fours, and the Huskies may have lost three key play­ers, but they aren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion to any­one who says their reign as a women’s bas­ket­ball’s peren­nial power is over.

Head­ing into their sea­son opener against Ohio State on Sun­day, the Huskies are shrug­ging off the pre­sea­son talk that this team might not be up to the usual UConn stan­dards. De­spite hav­ing more odds stacked against them than usual — like start­ing two in­ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers in Christyn Wil­liams and Me­gan Walker, who will play their first game as starters — UConn is still con­fi­dent in its abil­i­ties and is anx­ious for the sea­son to be­gin.

Yes, the loss of Kia Nurse, Gabby Wil­liams and Azura Stevens caused the Huskies to fill key roles with in­ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers. Yes, the de­fense isn’t as good as it was last year. Yes, they’re still work­ing through a tran­si­tional pe­riod and search­ing for con­sis­tency. But un­der­dogs? To UConn as­sis­tant coach Shea Ralph, the idea is ab­surd.

The coaches and play­ers don’t see it that way, es­pe­cially not the most ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers on the team — Napheesa Col­lier, Crys­tal Danger­field and Katie Lou Sa­muel­son.

“That’s what peo­ple are say­ing that we are,” Ralph said. “We don’t

feel that way about our­selves, and so those older kids don’t feel that they’re the un­der­dogs. I think they know how good they can be, but we just have to be that every day, and that’s where it’s frus­trat­ing for them at times and for our staff at times, be­cause we’re not that every day and we need to be much more con­sis­tent.”

There’s still a lot of work to be done be­fore March, Ralph said, but UConn isn’t hav­ing a “down” year, as she’s heard and read from oth­ers. They’ve been at the top for so long for a rea­son, and Col­lier, Danger­field and Sa­muel­son have years of ex­pe­ri­ence that can help lead the Huskies back to the Fi­nal Four.

“Those three … un­der­stand what’s down the road,” Ralph said. “They un­der­stand how hard it is to get to the Fi­nal Four and to win cham­pi­onships and con­fer­ence cham­pi­onships. That’s hard. It’s not easy to do, and a lot of times our teams make it look easy so they un­der­stand what’s down the road. I think the frus­trat­ing part right nowis while we can be great at times, we can be re­ally bad at times, too. We need to find a level of con­sis­tency of greatness across the board, and those three are in­volved in that.”

For fresh­men Olivia Nel­son-Ododa and Wil­liams — who are both ex­pected to get sig­nif­i­cant play­ing time — this year is go­ing to be a new ex­pe­ri­ence with pres­sures they’ve never faced be­fore. The ex­hi­bi­tion against Van­guard was the big­gest crowd ei­ther of them had played in front of.

Noth­ing can pre­pare them for what they’re walk­ing into as fresh­men, Ralph said. The crowds are only go­ing to get big­ger and so are the stakes. UConn, Ralph said, is ev­ery­one’s na­tional cham­pi­onship game.

“I don’t think they un­der­stand what’s com­ing af­ter them,” Ralph said. “… You read and lis­ten to what peo­ple are talk­ing about in terms of our team this year and how we’re sup­pos­edly down. So peo­ple are go­ing to come at their necks, and I don’t know that that’s ever hap­pened to them be­fore at this level with this many good teams and good play­ers that are just go­ing to come right af­ter them. I’m ex­cited to see how they han­dle it, to be hon­est. We’ll see.”

Help­ing the fresh­men and play­ers with less ex­pe­ri­ence ac­cli­mate to the in­ten­sity level of UConn’s games is some­thing Col­lier, Sa­muel­son and Danger­field are fo­cus­ing on head­ing into Sun­day’s sea­son opener. Ohio State is a team that’s hard to scout, as it’s made up of grad­u­ate trans­fers and fresh­men, so UConn is fo­cus­ing on it­self.

For Sa­muel­son, that means lean­ing on the ex­pe­ri­ence she gained her sopho­more year when the Huskies were in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion with peo­ple doubt­ing their talent head­ing into the sea­son.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent feel­ing than my sopho­more year,” Sa­muel­son said. “Go­ing into my sopho­more year, it re­ally felt like peo­ple were like, ‘Yeah, they’re done.’ But I don’t know if I’m just tun­ing out the out­side world or what­ever, but it just feels like me, Phee and Crys­tal are the older guys and we have to step up big­ger than we have be­fore. Sopho­more year, it was just like, ‘Welp, let’s see what they do,’ and we kind of all had to fig­ure out dif­fer­ent roles.

“This year we un­der­stand our roles. There’s not that much un­known for the three of us. We know what we need to bring every sin­gle day. Sopho­more year, it was like we didn’t know what we were go­ing to do un­til we started play­ing and ev­ery­one started work­ing to­gether, but now it’s just mak­ing sure we have five peo­ple on the court that are al­ways con­nected and con­tri­bu­tions from Christyn and Meg on a con­sis­tent ba­sis, and I think they’ve been do­ing more of that.”

UConn will start its sea­son against Ohio State at noon on Sun­day at Gam­pel Pavil­ion. The game will be broad­cast on CBS Sports Net­work.

JES­SICA HILL/AP

Con­necti­cut’s Katie Lou Sa­muel­son con­trols the ball dur­ing the first half of an ex­hi­bi­tion game Sun­day in Storrs.

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