STORRS - Katie Lou Samuelson sat across from the Stanford bench at Maples Pavilion when the UConn women’s basketball team last played the Cardinal three years ago. Though she was there supporting her older sisters, she had signed her letter of intent with the Huskies five days earlier.
With Bonnie and Karlie Samuelson playing key roles, Stanford ended UConn’s 47-game winning streak with an 88-86 overtime victory.
“I was really excited for my sisters, but there was this feeling that, ‘Darn, I wish we would have won,’ ” Katie Lou Samuelson said. “I know we would be ready to go if we got that opportunity to meet them again.”
It didn’t happen after Stanford, which had played UConn for six straight regular seasons, decided not to extend the series. It didn’t happen in the NCAA Tournament, though the Cardinal and Huskies reached the Final Four semifinals last March. Karlie and Stanford lost to South Carolina while Katie Lou and UConn fell to Mississippi State.
Even Sunday’s contest at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, (1:30 p.m., ESPN) almost didn’t happen. The Huskies were originally slated to face Ohio State with Stanford taking on Louisville. A switch was made in August, however, and Sunday’s Countdown to Columbus matchups have UConn-Stanford, Louisville-Ohio State.
But Karlie Samuelson has graduated and started her professional career in Italy, leaving Katie Lou as the lone family representative.
“It would be more special if my sister was still on their team,” Samuelson said. “But it’s a special game for this program. The last time we played Stanford, they beat them. I know Gabby (Williams) was talking last year about getting another chance to play them. We’ll have a lot of people ready to play.”
Senior Kia Nurse is the only UConn player left that saw action in that Nov. 17, 2014, contest. Williams did not get off the bench (coach’s decision) and has said repeatedly that she was not ready to play in that game. The only Stanford player left on the Cardinal roster to get on the floor is Kaylee Johnson, though guard Lili Thompson - who had 24 points - will face the Huskies on Dec. 3 when Notre Dame visits the XL Center. She is taking her final year of eligibility with the Irish as a graduate transfer.
Sunday’s game is UConn’s first since Mississippi State ended its 111-game winning streak and four-year reign as national champ in Dallas last March 31.
“We’re ready for the games to start, but the season really started a long time ago,” Samuelson said.
For the 6-foot-3 guard from Huntington Beach, California, she’s worked to improve on her breakout season of a year ago.
Samuelson was a consensus first-team All-American and the 2017 American Athletic Conference Co-Player of the Year with teammate and classmate Napheesa Collier. She averaged 20.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.2 assists as a sophomore and reached the 1,000-point plateau. Against South Florida in the AAC Tournament final, she set a NCAA record by going 10-for-10 from 3-point land in a career high 40-point performance that earned her Most Outstanding Player honors.
She expanded her game a season ago but coach Geno Auriemma is demanding more from her, particularly at the defensive end and running the floor. And when he makes remarks about what he sees as her shortcomings, she is more determined to prove the Hall of Fame coach wrong.
“That’s what he wants,” Samuelson said. “He wants us to fight and show that we have that heart to fight back when he knocks us down. He knows that he’ll get it out of us eventually. That’s why I think people succeed or don’t succeed here. If you take it to heart every time, you won’t become the player he expects you to be. It shows that he has high expectations.
“With me he’s on me for defense every day. People don’t like to do what’s hard and defense is hard. That’s why you appreciate someone like Kia or Gabby because you know how hard it is to do what they do. I try to do that. You think you’re sticking it to him and then you think, ‘He’s right. So are you really sticking it to him?’ ”
When it comes to playing at a faster pace, she has confidence that if she gets tired and needs a break, the reserves will help the Huskies maintain their level of play. UConn has six newcomers on its roster, though Batouly Camara will miss Sunday’s game with a knee injury.
“That’s a big thing with this team, too,” Samuelson said. “We feel comfortable that we have a lot of people who can play. Last year we didn’t feel as trusting.”
Stanford (0-1) opened its season Friday night with an 85-64 loss at Ohio State. Brittany McPhee scored 24 points for the Cardinal but their other four starters combined for just 11.
UConn will go with the starting lineup it used in its two exhibition wins. And Samuelson’s dream of playing against Stanford will finally come true.
Whose side will her sisters be on come Sunday? “My side, of course,” Samuelson said with a smile.