TAMPA — Things were very different at Connecticut three years ago. The Huskies went undefeated that season, going 38-0 en route to a national championship. The games were not particularly close either, as UConn defeated its opponents by an average of 39.7 points per contest. The team beat Syracuse in the 2016 title game by 31 points, 82-51, capping off a historically dominant season.
Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were only freshmen at the time.
Fast forward three seasons and things look slightly different for the pair of seniors. The Huskies have fallen in the Final Four the last two seasons, with this year presenting the duo with their final opportunity to hoist the national championship trophy.
UConn arrived at its 12th straight Final Four this year as a No. 2 seed. This is the first year since 2006 that UConn has not been ranked as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. This is also the first Connecticut team to lose multiple regular season games since the 2012-2013 season.
However, Samuelson and Collier will look to turn the team’s fortunes around during their final run as college teammates. The seniors have done all they can this season to lead the Huskies back to the promised land, producing at a historic level. With 4,708 combined career points, Samuelson and Collier are the highest scoring pair of classmates in UConn history. This is no short feat for a program that has produced some of the sport’s greatest players. The duo has gone 145-4 over the course of their careers at UConn, which includes playing a large role in the program’s 94 straight home wins at Gampel Pavilion and XL Center.
Collier has been dominant in her senior year, leading the Huskies in points per game (21), rebounds (10.8) and blocks (1.5). During her final campaign in Storrs, she became just the fifth Husky all time to accumulate 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds over the course of her career. She was also named an AP All-American three times while at UConn, landing first-team honors twice (2017, 2019) and third-team honors once (2018). During Connecticut’s 2019 tournament run, the forward has produced four double-doubles to propel the Huskies.
“It’s been great,” said Samuelson, reflecting on her four seasons as Collier’s teammate. “For us to be able to experience this together and go through the same stages. Most people don’t get that, with transfers and stuff like that. We’ve been so consistent here. She’s someone I call a best friend, we’re so similar. Finding that is rare. For us, we’re just enjoying every moment we have.”
Samuelson is the lightening to Collier’s thunder, as the senior has averaged 18.5 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.8 assists per game for Connecticut. While her shooting numbers are slightly down from last season, she has still made 86 3-point shots over the course of her final collegiate season. After scoring just six points in the UConn win over UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen, Samuelson exploded for 29 points — including seven 3-pointers — as the Huskies knocked off 1 seed Louisville in the Elite Eight.
“It’s been really cool,” said Collier on playing the last four seasons with a teammate like Samuelson. “We happen to be best friends as an added bonus. I am really proud of everything we have been able to do for this program and it’s been a really cool ride that we’ve had.”
Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma is thankful for the contributions that Collier and Samuelson have made over their four seasons as Huskies.
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“For me mostly, you know, this weekend, this NCAA tournament, really has been about these two guys [Collier and Samuelson] sitting next to me here in the sense that when you have two seniors who have accomplished everything that they've accomplished in their four years at Connecticut,” says Auriemma.
“Why do these two deserve to be here? You can't find a reason to say, well, they don't. So for me it's all about the fact that regardless of how it goes this weekend, these two are ending their career exactly where it needs to end. I'm really, really, really thankful for that. I really am.”
For Collier and Samuelson, they hope their journey ends just as it started — winning a national championship for the University of Connecticut.