An iconic performance from an icon.
ALBANY — UConn has done the whole regional final thing before, not that it seemed that way on Sunday. When the buzzer sounded on the Huskies’ 80-73 win over Louisville, the team that is making its 12th straight trip to the Final Four celebrated like it was the first time. There were the customary high-fives and cheers from the crowd. Head coach Geno Auriemma grabbed his entire staff in a massive group hug in the middle of the court.
Then there was Katie Lou Samuelson, back problems and all, lifting her teammate Crystal Dangerfield, and carrying her to the postgame celebration.
UConn fans might not want to admit it, but the Huskies probably shouldn’t have even made it to Sunday, with the chance to play for a spot in Tampa. In the Sweet 16, they trailed 6 seed UCLA by five in the second half and Samuelson looked like a mere shell of herself.
She said she was well enough to play, but she didn’t look it. The Huskies essentially use a six-person rotation, so losing someone who averages 18.2 points per game should not be a problem they can just work through.
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Samuelson’s bad back kept her out of the American Athletic Conference tournament entirely, and out of the scoring column for most of the night on Friday. But like always, she did just enough. To end the third quarter and start the fourth, she assisted on the two baskets that brought UConn within a point of the Bruins and the one that gave it the lead. She provided the exclamation point — a steal, layup, and a flagrant foul with five minutes left in the fourth quarter that put the game away.
Her performance carried into the regional final. She made her first shot of the game — a three off a pass from Dangerfield that put UConn up 7-0 and kept going from there. She finished with 29 points, hit seven threes, and notched her fourth trip to the Final Four.
Trying to talk to her about her physical pain from Friday night, into Saturday, and into the regional final on Sunday is a useless endeavor. So, allow Auriemma to sum it up:
“Yesterday she was not in a good place,” he said after the Louisville game. “Physically, mentally, emotionally, she was really beat up. She was really beat up, and somehow, we had a long talk today about a couple things, and she found her strength.”
Samuelson credits the adrenaline of the NCAA Tournament, which to be fair, had to have played a role. How else would you explain how someone with a bad back was able to lift Dangerfield and carry her? Sure, Dangerfield is only 5’5, but she’s still a human. It couldn’t have been the wisest decision.
“We’ve been through a lot together. Her, [Napheesa Collier], and I have gone through trying to figure out a lot with this team, trying to figure out the ups and downs and stuff like that, so the three of us really have a special bond,” Samuelson said. “She felt weightless to me. All adrenaline.”
Well, not all adrenaline. Adrenaline can’t put the ball in the basket in the biggest moments. Samuelson did that herself, the biggest bucket coming with just over three minutes left. It was a long three to put the Huskies up by nine, plus a foul from Sam Fuehring. Samuelson missed the free throw, but the prospect of a four-point play lit a fire under the primarily UConn crowd and seemed to give the team even more of an emotional lift than her previous six triples.
By then, it was easy for fans to forget about that bad back.
Samuelson did admit to the usual postgame recovery stuff after Friday — the ice baths and all — but didn’t go further than that. She said several times that it was all mental.
“Every single person has things they’ve got to fight through,” she said. “And they have to be ready to step up and get over that. So it comes down to just: are you mentally tough enough to play?’”
On Sunday, her toughness meant more than making every big play that the game commanded. It meant staying locked in through foul trouble, and when Auriemma sat her and her four fouls down to start the fourth quarter, finding other ways to contribute.
Before the fourth quarter started, with UConn leading by four, she pulled the team together to give them one last message before it took the court.
“I felt like, when I have something to say, they all listen,” she said. “I went out there in that fourth quarter and just said ‘we’ve got to bear down and make these rebounds, and we’re going to the Final Four.’”
Maybe against lesser teams, the pep talk has more of a storybook result: the team comes out and blows the doors off its opponent, gets every 50/50 ball, and cruises to the Final Four. But this is Louisville. The No. 1 seed. One of only two teams to beat the Huskies all year long. The Cardinals nearly erased an 11-point deficit over the final 1:40. They got to within two on an Arica Carter layup with 26 seconds remaining.
Three seconds later, Samuelson stepped to the line and calmly sank two free throws to make it a two-possession game.
In the waning seconds, Samuelson stood and waved to the crowd, encouraging the nearly 10,000 fans at the Times Union Center to get even louder. She clapped her hands and let out a couple screams. She hugged her teammates. Then, when the clock hit zero, she lifted one of them in the air and began walking. She’s now carried Dangerfield around the court and her team all the way to Tampa.
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