UConn women’s preview:

The News-Times (Sunday) - - Sports - dbon­jour @ct­post.com; @DougBon­jour

Cal­i­for­nian Katie Lou Sa­muel­son thriv­ing in Con­necti­cut.

STORRS — It would have made per­fect sense for Jon Sa­muel­son’s youngest daugh­ter to fol­low in the foot­steps of her two sib­lings when it came time to make a life-chang­ing de­ci­sion. Her two older sis­ters, Bon­nie and Kar­lie, had both cho­sen to stay rel­a­tively close to their South­ern Cal­i­for­nia home and at­tend Stan­ford, an elite aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion with a pres­ti­gious women’s bas­ket­ball pro­gram.

But Katie Lou had her sights set else­where. She wanted to be dif­fer­ent.

“She def­i­nitely is very, I would say, more in­de­pen­dent and con­fi­dent … than her sis­ters,” Jon said re­cently by phone. “Maybe it’s be­cause — I don’t know. She’s al­ways never been afraid to do things on her own. She’s def­i­nitely more in­de­pen­dent than them.”

There was no waf­fling, no am­bi­gu­ity. Katie Lou, a lights-out shooter who was con­sid­ered the best high school girls bas­ket­ball player in the coun­try for the Class of 2015, had de­cided to leave warm, laid-back Or­ange County, Calif. for the rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity of Storrs, Conn. She would spend the next phase of her life brav­ing not only bone-chill­ing win­ters, but also the break­neck de­mands of a leg­endary coach.

“She was go­ing to do what she wanted to do,” Jon said. “She vis­ited and met with the coaches. There was no stop­ping her from do­ing that.”

And there was no stop­ping Geno Auriemma — who had just won his 10th na­tional cham­pi­onship at UConn — from mak­ing her feel wel­come in his own spe­cial way.

“Some­times it can get tough; some­times Coach can be tough, es­pe­cially when it’s your first year here,” said Sa­muel­son, now a se­nior. “You don’t un­der­stand how he works some­times. He’s try­ing to make you the best player you can be, but it can seem like the world’s crash­ing down on you.”

Auriemma learned what but­tons he needed to push to mo­ti­vate Sa­muel­son. He nee­dled her, say­ing that the peo­ple she looked up to most — her sis­ters — were tougher than her.

“I used to tell her that all fresh­man year, ‘[Darn], we got the wrong Sa­muel­son,” Auriemma re­called, smil­ing. “I used to say that all the time, all the time. I’d say, ‘We missed out on the one that made ev­ery shot. We missed out on the tough­est one.’ ”

Added Sa­muel­son: “He knows ex­actly how to push my but­tons. He knows what to do with each player, and he fig­ures it out quicker than any­one I’ve ever seen. He knows ex­actly how to kind of get peo­ple to be what he wants them to be.”

Three years later, the stakes have changed quite a bit be­tween the Hall of Fame coach and his All-Amer­i­can shoot­ing guard.

“‘We ended up with you.’ That used to get her re­ally mad,” Auriemma said. “Now I can’t even say that.”

HIGHS AND LOWS

Sa­muel­son, 21, is com­ing off a sea­son in which she av­er­aged 17.4 points, 4.5 re­bounds, 3.8 as­sists and led the coun­try by hit­ting 47.5 per­cent of her 3-point at­tempts. And there’s a per­cep­tion — it’s an er­ro­neous one, Auriemma says — that those num­bers should con­tinue to grow now that Sa­muel­son is a year older.

“There’s this per­cep­tion that there’s a whole ’nother level for them,” Auriemma said, speak­ing about se­niors in gen­eral. “Some- times it’s more sub­tle than that, too. You might not no­tice the huge im­prove­ment from ju­nior year to se­nior year in a kid. I think that’s where Lou and (for­ward Napheesa Col­lier) are right now … where what­ever is go­ing to be hap­pen­ing on the court, it’s go­ing to be kind of sub­tle. How much can their num­bers can go up?

“I mean, Lou, es­pe­cially, what’s she go­ing to shoot 65 per­cent from the 3-point line?”

Make no mis­take, Auriemma still ex­pects Sa­muel­son, a pre­sea­son AP first team All-Amer­i­can, to leave her im­print on games. How she goes about do­ing so just might not be as no­tice­able to the ca­sual fan.

“Where does she have to go? Where can she go?,” Auriemma asked rhetor­i­cally. “Go­ing to a place where ev­ery time down the floor, I can get pretty much any shot I want. I’m not go­ing to be lim­ited to, well, ‘Lou gets that shot. That’s where she goes to get her shot’ — like fresh­man year.”

Sa­muel­son, who was highly touted com­ing out of Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Cal­i­for­nia, had her share of highs and lows. There were nights when she looked like a bud­ding star — she scored in dou­ble-fig­ures 22 times, in­clud­ing a 21-point ef­fort in a Sweet 16 vic­tory over Mis­sis­sippi State — and oth­ers — she took only one shot and com­mit­ted four fouls over 22 min­utes in a 66-54 win against No. 2 South Carolina — when it seemed like she’d rather be any­where but Storrs.

When look­ing at the big picture, she had played well enough to be named es­pnW Fresh­man of the Year — av­er­ag­ing 11.0 points and 3.3 re­bounds per game — but it wasn’t all rosy for Sa­muel­son.

“It was su­per tough for her,” Jon said. “Yeah, it was tough. She had lots of ups and downs. It was never, ‘I’m in the wrong place.’ … It was kind of ev­ery­thing.”

Added Katie Lou: “Be­ing a fresh­man, es­pe­cially at UConn, is re­ally dif­fi­cult. I know ev­ery sin­gle fresh­man who’s been through here can say the same thing.”

STRONG-WILLED

She was never the tallest nor strong­est player on the court when her older sis­ters were nearby, but she was most cer­tainly the feisti­est. Bon­nie, who is four years older and would play along­side Kar­lie in col­lege, re­mem­bers Katie Lou never back­ing down dur­ing shootarounds in the back­yard of the fam­ily’s Hunt­ing­ton Beach, Calif., home. Bon­nie and Kar­lie would take turns block­ing Katie Lou’s shots, wait­ing to see how long it would take for their younger sis­ter to get dis­cour­aged and head in­side. To her credit, most times she never did.

“I re­mem­ber her get­ting blocked about 10 times in a row by ei­ther me or Kar­lie,” Bon­nie said. “She was still run­ning around like, ‘It’s my ball; it’s my turn. I want to go again.’ ”

Bon­nie likes to think that both she and Kar­lie — who is two years older than Katie Lou and cur­rently play­ing pro­fes­sion­ally in Bel­gium — are partly re­spon­si­ble for tough­en­ing Katie Lou up.

“Be­ing as good as she is now, I guess it’s be­cause she wanted to be bet­ter than us,” Bon­nie said. “She wanted to beat us in those con­tests. She wanted to com­pete with us in 1-on-1. She never backed down.”

Kevin Kier­nan, the head girls bas­ket­ball coach at Mater Dei, saw Sa­muel­son dis­play those same traits un­der his watch. He had de­vel­oped an­other great UConn shooter, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

“She’s an in­de­pen­dent thinker. She’s a very strong-willed, tough kid,” Kier­nan said re­cently. “She’s very com­pet­i­tive, just hated to lose. Any drill, any game, she just hated to lose.”

For­tu­nately, Sa­muel­son hasn’t done a whole lot of los­ing dur­ing her time in Storrs. The Huskies are 110-2 over the last three sea­sons, los­ing each of the last two years in the Fi­nal Four. The Huskies won their 11th na­tional cham­pi­onship dur­ing Sa­muel­son’s fresh­man sea­son, but she missed the game with a bro­ken bone in her left foot.

Last sea­son, Sa­muel­son sus­tained an­other ma­jor in­jury: a torn ten­don in her left an­kle. She un­der­went surgery on April 12 and — be­grudg­ingly — sat out a large chunk of the off­sea­son.

Sa­muel­son played — and started — 32 games as a ju­nior. Re­flect­ing on how much the in­jury lim­ited her, she’s sur­prised she was able to suit up for that many.

“It’s funny to think back on it and see kind of the dif­fer­ences of what I’m able to do now, just nat­u­rally,” she said. “I don’t think I re­al­ized it un­til I started prac­tic­ing again this year, how I rounded off ev­ery bend. … I’m just happy to be back to where I want to be — 100 per­cent.”

In other words, all is well for Sa­muel­son and the cham­pi­onship­minded Huskies.

“Re­ally, she hadn’t had a break in like, I don’t know, four to five years,” Jon said. “It was a re­ally good thing for her body to take that break. She didn’t stop work­ing out, she just didn’t play as much.”

John Carl D'An­ni­bale / Al­bany Times Union

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