UConn women’s preview:
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.”
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.”