MOHEGAN INDIAN RES. - Maybe the nets at Mohegan Sun Arena were too hot to handle after Napheesa Collier torched them for three days in leading the UConn women’s basketball team to the American Athletic Conference Tournament title.
Of course, a ladder was not necessary as the Huskies continued their decade-old tradition of cutting down the nets only after winning the national championship game.
But don’t think for a second that UConn’s 66-45 win over Central Florida that gave the Huskies their sixth straight AAC crown and 24th conference tournament championship overall wasn’t important to them.
“We lost three first-round (WNBA) draft picks from last year’s team, and we’re playing a lot of players who have not been in this situation before,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “For us to still be able to accomplish the same things that we accomplished with that other team, that is really satisfying and really rewarding. Each year has its own challenges, and this one was challenging. I’m really proud of these guys.”
The Huskies (31-2) receive the AAC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. They will start their bid for a 12th national championship at Gampel Pavilion on March 22 or 23, likely as the No. 1 seed in the Albany (New York) Regional. It will be their 31st consecutive NCAA appearance.
UConn is 120-0 against AAC competition. Its last conference tournament loss was to Notre Dame in the 2013 Big East final. Only one senior class (1993) in the last 28 years has failed to win at least two tournament titles with the Huskies. Collier and classmate Katie Lou Samuelson are the 11th UConn senior class to win four.
For freshmen Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, it was their first.
“Each championship means different things to different people,” Auriemma said. “Our seniors are like, ‘This is what we do.’ And Christyn and Megan (Walker) to be on the all-tournament team, you can’t just whitewash that and go, ‘That’s nothing. It will be about the Final Four.’ This is a big deal for these kids. You never want to make it like it’s not as important as something coming up next.”
Collier was the unanimous selection as the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament as she averaged 28.3 points on 67.3 shooting from the floor while making all 15 of her free throws and 13.0 rebounds.
The St. Charles, Missouri, resident is the fourth UConn player to be the MOP of a conference tournament and NCAA Regional while also making an all-Final Four team. She was the MOP of the 2017 Bridgeport Regional and was part of the 2018 all-Final Four team. The other three to do it are Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, and Breanna Stewart.
“I said this in the locker room, and this is what kids don’t understand,” Auriemma said. “You think just because you go to a certain school you’re entitled to a championship, and you don’t even know how to play in championship games. The reason why we have won so many championships games other than our talent, and the reason we have won those championship games in the Final Four, is you have to have kids that deserve it.
“You say, ‘Every kid deserves it.’ No they don’t. Not every kid deserves it. Not every kid is willing to work every day from October to March to prepare for that moment. They just want to be in that moment, and they hope they’re good enough in that moment. Well Pheesa doesn’t go into any big game thinking, ‘I hope I’m good enough for this moment.’ She knows she’s good enough because she prepares every day for that moment. So she just goes into every game thinking, ‘I’m fine, and you’re panicking. Why? Because you’re not ready for this, and I am.’ That’s it in a nutshell, and that’s why she deserves everything she gets.”
Collier was joined on the all-tournament squad by teammates Williams, Walker, and Crystal Dangerfield.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, Spring Break at the school is not till next week so they were not able to go home after Monday night’s win. But they are getting some time for themselves.
“We have three days off right now so we just need to get in the gym and get some shots up when we feel ready,” Collier said. “In practice there is a different mentality with everything trying to get perfect because there is such a limited amount of time. If we lose the next game we’re done, so do or die.”
The Huskies will learn their NCAA draw this coming Monday when the 64-team field is announced.
Samuelson plans to spend her free time before the Huskies’ NCAA draw at the Werth Champions Center continuing her rehabilitation from the back injury that sidelined her for the AAC Tournament.
“We have a few days off so I’m sure I’ll be in the gym,” Samuelson said. “I consider the training room at Werth as part of the gym. I’ve been shooting since it happened but we’ll see what I can do.”
Auriemma remains confident that the two-time All-American, who was hurt March 2, will be ready for the NCAA Tournament.
“It will be about three weeks,” he said. “I would think if she is not ready in three weeks that we have some serious issues. But there is no doubt in my mind that she is going to be ready to go. Every day she is better than the day before. She got whacked pretty good. That was a pretty good bruise. It wasn’t in her leg or her arm. It was in her back. That controls everything. But believe me, I am expecting her to play, and so is she.”
Samuelson is among five finalists for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as the nation’s top shooting guard. The other finalists are 2018 winner Asia Durr (Louisville), Arike Ogunbowale (Notre Dame), Maci Morris (Kentucky), and Kiana Williams (Stanford).