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Jim Fuller | The New Haven Register | November 14, 2016

UConn to rely on Samuelson, Williams, Collier, Nurse to maintain success

  This season marks the first time Geno Auriemma's UConn team doesn't feature one of last year's top three returning scorers.

STORRS, Conn.  -- When word began to spread that the recently-played 2016 national championship game was the final one for Morgan Tuck at UConn, more roars of elation could be heard coming from the camps of some of the nation's elite programs.

Tuck teamed with Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson for the most remarkable run of any women's basketball recruiting class ever, becoming the first women's Division I team to win four straight national titles. The only blemish in the final three seasons of the Huskies' Big 3 came when UConn failed to hold onto a 10-point lead in the final 6 1/2 minutes of the second half of an eventual overtime loss at Stanford Nov. 17, 2014.

South Carolina coach Dawn Staley could be speaking for countless other coaches when she said "now that UConn's Big Three are gone I think it leaves all of us with a little bit more hope than we have had over the past four years."

Since leading the Huskies to the first of a record 11 national titles during the 1994-95 season, UConn coach Geno Auriemma brought back his leading scorer 12 times and top two point producers on eight occasions. Yet, this will mark the first time since his arrival that none of the top three scorers from the previous season will be taking the court for the Huskies.

"Everything is going to be completely different from what they are used to seeing and at least we'll have something to talk about," Auriemma said.

Over the last couple of seasons Auriemma and his players have often faced the question "is UConn's dominance bad for the sport?" The dialogue has changed a bit. Even though UConn debuted at No. 1 in the national coaches' poll and came in at No. 3 in the writers' poll, there are some who think that a program that hasn't lost consecutive games since March of 1993 could open the season at 0-2 with games at No. 12 Florida State on Monday and a home game against second-ranked Baylor on Thursday.

Auriemma has joked that the best thing that could happen is that the Huskies lose both of those games, but those who know him know nothing could be further from the truth.

"It doesn't matter what he has, he is going to find a way to be the very best," said Temple coach Tonya Cardoza, a former assistant coach at UConn. "I think every day he is going to practice using it as a motivation. I don't think anybody is expecting anything different from what they are doing because they always find a way."

UConn owns the three longest NCAA Division I women's basketball winning streaks, including its current 75-game run. UConn has six undefeated seasons, twice as many as the rest of the Division I programs combined.

"If we get beat a couple of times and we lose some of our identity, it is not going to be a lot of fun," Auriemma said. "From a coaching staff (standpoint) it is going to be how do we maintain that same level of expectation level that we have at UConn, don't lower our standards, but understand it is a new world we are entering into."

The Huskies certainly will miss Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck, who were the top three picks in April's WNBA Draft. But it isn't like the Huskies begin their quest for a fifth straight national title without elite players to build around.

Sophomore Katie Lou Samuelson is the top returning scorer and her 78 3-pointers are the second most for a freshman at UConn. Junior Gabby Williams averaged 23 points and 9.5 rebounds in the two preseason games, with sophomore Napheesa Collier contributing 12 points and nine rebounds in the wins over Indiana (Pa.) and Pace.

All junior Kia Nurse has done is been the leading scorer for Canada in not only the 2016 Olympics but in the Pan Am Games and FIBA Americas Championships in 2015. It's hard to forget Nurse's magical 33-point performance to lead Canada past the United States in the Pan Am gold medal game. That U.S. team happened to be led by Stewart and Jefferson and featured at least three other players who could be first-round picks in the 2017 WNBA Draft.

"At some point in all of our lives we have been in this role with our younger teams and I believe now it is about stepping up and stepping into that role," Nurse said.

"When you have those players, so much talent and so much depth, you don't really look for your shot. You sacrifice for the team in order to be successful. Even with this team, we trust people to take shots. You know when you give somebody the ball, you want them to shoot it when they are open. It is something they yelled at me a lot when I was a freshman, that I didn't shoot the ball so you can feel that trust now."

One thing that hasn't changed is the on-court chemistry. Nurse and Williams barely knew each other before arriving at UConn, but now are best friends. The same can be said for Collier and Samuelson.

"We have grown a lot, everybody knows that we are best friends, so going through this process together has really brought us closer," Collier said. "When you have somebody who is going through things at the same time as you are, you can talk to them about what is going on and support each other."

Auriemma is pleased with the chemistry of this team.

"You know what has been really neat is all four of them, they all celebrate each other's successes," Auriemma said. "When one of them does something that the other three have been working on, the other three go crazy because they know how much time and effort has gone into that. They are each other's biggest fans and that is starting to filter down to the team."

They are being asked to bring more to the program. While players like Saniya Chong and Natalie Butler, as well as freshmen Molly Bent, Crystal Dangerfield and Kyla Irwin are going to have a role in the level of success for the Huskies, the pressure to produce on a game-in, game-out basis has been placed squarely on the shoulders of Collier, Nurse, Samuelson and Williams.

"They know 'we are all in this together, let's figure it out,'" Auriemma said. "We just need you guys to be really solid every day, come to practice every day, be really good and don't take anything for granted. That is a huge change for them, not that they took things for granted, they were able to go to bed at night and wake up in the morning and go, 'if I don't play great, what's the worst that could happen?' I think now when they are laying there, at least the four that are returning , every non-conference game we play this year and maybe more, if I don't play really well, we are going to lose. It is the first time a bunch of them have been in that situation and I don't want to add to that until we lose and then I am going to remind them that it is because of them that we lost."

Williams and Collier worked diligently to improve their shooting range. Williams stepped out and made a 3-pointer against Pace. Collier was a 92 percent free-throw shooter as a freshman, but that didn't always translate into her confidently looking for shots away from the basket. Nurse knows teams will expect her to drive aggressively to the basket and will be there to either draw an offensive foul or block the shot while the sweet-shooting Samuelson wanted to use her 6-foot-3 frame to be more effective in scoring inside.

"It is really exciting for us because we know that every single person on this team has the ability to shine," Samuelson said. "Each game it is going to be somebody doing some different things so we all know we have to contribute and have to have a different role, do a little bit more than we did last year. Just knowing that, it gives everybody that confidence that we are all in this together and we all have the ability to do great things. We are going to work with each other and whatever each of us can do, we are going to do what we can to get the win."

Much of the work will be done in practice, but Auriemma also tested the Huskies with arguably the most challenging non-conference schedule in program history. UConn will play each of the other top seven teams in the national coaches poll and seven teams ranked in the top in both national polls.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," Williams said. "That is what you come to UConn for, you come for environments like that and you come to play teams like that. I think it is going to be really fun."


This article was written by Jim Fuller from New Haven Register, Conn. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.



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