Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson are the link from UConn’s past to its future

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 05: Napheesa Collier #24 of the Connecticut Huskies shoots over Brianna Turner #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Amalie Arena on April 5, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
TAMPA, FL - APRIL 05: Napheesa Collier #24 of the Connecticut Huskies shoots over Brianna Turner #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Amalie Arena on April 5, 2019 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Ben Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) /

TAMPA — For the third year in a row, the same scene played out for UConn following the national semifinals.

The Huskies walked into the postgame press conference first, as is customary for the losing team. Geno Auriemma gave an honest and frank assessment of a team that fell just short, and a group of dejected players dealt with the reality that their season came to an end, tantalizingly close to the ultimate goal.

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The seniors, Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier, leave UConn with a national championship, four conference championships, four Final Four appearances, and only five total losses. They also leave as the last real link to the unstoppable group that won four straight titles from 2013 to 2016.

Samuelson and Collier were freshmen on the 2016 team, and on April 10, we will be able to say that team had eight WNBA players.

“It’s not apparent until after their gone how much they did for you, how much they contributed to your success, how much you’re going to miss their presence, every single day, on the court, off the court, it doesn’t matter,” Auriemma said. “For such a young team that we have, such an inexperienced team in a lot of ways, those two really had a huge burden to carry all year long.”

All career long, really. After 2016, UConn lost Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck, who were taken with the top three picks of the WNBA Draft. UConn lost only one game the next year, at the buzzer to Mississippi State in the national semifinals.

To make that happen, Samuelson upped her scoring numbers from 11 per game to over 20. Collier went from 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds to 20-and-9.

The next year, they brought everyone back, tore through the regular season, and lost only one game again, basically on a buzzer-beater to Notre Dame in the national semifinals. Samuelson and Collier led the team in scoring for the second time.

They lost Kia Nurse, Gabby Williams, and Azura Stevens, all taken in the top 10 of the WNBA Draft. UConn lost just three times this year, all to teams that earned No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament. For the third year in a row, the now-seniors led the charge.

Their UConn legacy is already secure, complete with a national title and names on the wall at Gampel Pavilion among the Huskies of Honor. Their impact, however, will carry into next year.

A dejected Christyn Williams stood at her locker shortly after Friday’s loss and made it clear exactly how much the seniors helped prepare her to lead next season and beyond.

“They’ve helped me and [Olivia Nelson-Ododa] throughout our entire freshman year,” she said. “They were there to encourage us when we were down. They were leaders.”

Nelson-Ododa didn’t have the minutes or the big moments that Williams or sophomore Megan Walker had in supporting roles this year, but her contributions played a major role in bringing UConn to the brink of the title game. Just by having a presence in the lane against UCLA in the Sweet 16, she was able to affect the outcome of the game. She blocked two shots and kept a bigger team in check for 13 minutes.

She did the same thing against Notre Dame, even adding four points and five rebounds.

“That kid is going to be a dynamite player,” Auriemma said. “She really stepped up today. Her and Christyn.”

A few feet away from Williams, Collier entertained reporters and expressed her confidence in Williams and sophomore Megan Walker going into next year, noting the ways they’ve improved from November to April.

“IQ is the biggest thing just because experience is what builds that,” she said. “You could see the growth in the way they make reads on defense and offense, or whatever it may be. You could see a huge jump from the beginning of the year to now.”

UConn is supposed to take a step back next year. Without Samuelson and Collier, Crystal Dangerfield, Williams, and Walker will be the stars. Nelson-Ododa will need to continue to make strides and play more significant minutes.

UConn was also supposed to take a step back in 2017 and came within a miracle shot of playing for the national title. It was supposed to take a step back in 2019 and led Notre Dame by nine in the fourth quarter at the Final Four. The one key difference is that Auriemma is going to have to make a late move or two, probably on the grad transfer market, to fill out an already thin roster. It’s not something he’s accustomed to doing, but the team needs players and has just one recruit signed for next year (granted that one recruit is five-star Aubrey Griffin).

But with the way that this year’s seniors have kept the UConn machine rolling, the expectations aren’t changing. Nor should they.

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