The UConn women's basketball team knows that it needs to focus on the remaining conference games, but with postseason play around the corner, coach Geno Auriemma can't help but realize the importance three of his players will hold.
Megan Walker, Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa have made strides this season, especially in the past month. In the remaining regular season games, starting with Memphis on Wednesday night, Auriemma will try to keep bringing them along at a steady pace because he knows they will play critical roles in the NCAA Tournament.
"Postseason play, which is all we're talking about really, isn't necessarily about your stars," Auriemma said. "Postseason play is what are your other players going to do? Everyone has certain key players who are pretty much going to play well in the postseason because they generally do. What separates the winners from the losers is what some of the other players contribute. It's just like the other day when Megan and Christyn started making plays and making shots. We were a really good team in the first half, and then we became a really, really good team in the second half because of those two. As we get closer to postseason, other than our main three, what the other guys do is going to be the key."
Averaging 15.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, an assist and a steal per game in UConn’s 2-0 week, @UConnWBB's Christyn Williams is the #AmericanHoops Freshman of the Week.— American WBB (@American_WBB) February 18, 2019
📝: https://t.co/pCESj9VBhE pic.twitter.com/I4JVMinALA
All three players have had their ups and downs this season, but Auriemma said they've all shown signs of improvement in the past month. For Williams, who will be in the NCAA Tournament for the first time, she's trying to take things one day at a time and to not look too far into the future.
After having a breakout game against Notre Dame, the freshman hit a wall. She's since been able to push past it, recently being named AAC freshman of the week after averaging 15.5 points and 3.5 rebounds last week. Auriemma said he's reduced the amount of things he expects her to know because she has a tendency to overthink, which Williams said has really helped her remain active in recent games.
"That helped me a lot," Williams said. "Things got a little overwhelming because there are a lot of plays that we would remember, so in games I would mess up. As a freshman, when you're the only one messing up on the court, obviously, it's going to show. So it's given me less things to think about and worry about."
While Williams was trying to sort things out, Walker stepped up and became a consistent contributor for the Huskies. She scored 34 points against Tulane and hasn't seemed to slow down since. She's shooting 44.7 percent from behind the arc and has been more active defense.
Walker spent a lot of time working on her 3-point shooting and passing over the summer, and the result has been increased confidence that's allowed her to be more involved, Auriemma said. While the sophomore has dealt with postseason play before, this year she's ready to take on a bigger role.
"Coach puts us in positions every day for that to happen," Walker said of being expected to do more. "He's just trying to prepare us for the postseason, so I feel good about it. I think Christyn and Olivia do, too. We just want to go out there and have fun and win."
As a freshman, Nelson-Ododa will also be faced with her first tournament. Though she's not a starter, Nelson-Ododa has become a bench player the Huskies can rely on more than most. She's averaging the most points off the bench with 11.6, and she's second in blocked shots on the team with 28.
Nelson-Ododa has offered UConn a disruptive presence in the lane and, though she's still trying to work through her own freshman struggles, she's given the Huskies a solid option off the bench.
"She made a difference against [South Carolina]," Auriemma said. "They didn't get any layups when she was in the game. That's a big factor for us. If she can play good defense and rebound the ball, then she becomes a huge asset to what we're doing because she's got something that no one else has. She's 6-foot-5 and long, so we've got to figure out a way to keep getting her more comfortable."
The Huskies are five games away from the conference tournament, and while they're focusing on their upcoming game against Memphis, they're also slowly readying their less experienced players for what's to come.
"That freshman year going into the first tournament was definitely nerve-wracking," Katie Lou Samuelson said. "It's good when you have older guys to help you through it, so I'm trying to be someone that helps the young guys through it, too."
This article is written by Kelli Stacy from The Hartford Courant and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org