UNCASVILLE — The UConn women’s basketball team will enter the American Athletic Conference tournament as the top seed.
The Huskies, however, will be without injured First Team All-Conference player Katie Lou Samuelson.
Fellow senior Napheesa Collier, who was named the AAC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year on Friday morning, will be counted on heavily to fill the void.
No. 2 UConn (28-2, 16-0 AAC) will face No. 8 East Carolina, a 50-48 overtime winner over No. 9 SMU in Friday’s first round, in Saturday’s second quarterfinal. Tip-off is 2 p.m. at Mohegan Sun Arena.
UConn goes in with the No. 1 scoring offense (82.9) and scoring defense (54.9) in the conference. The Huskies will, however, have to figure out a way to replace Samuelson’s nearly 20 points per game.
“We are going to have to get some extra stuff from our starters,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Where we are going to get that, I don’t know. I think we certainly have the ability to do that. We certainly have the players that are capable of doing it.
“I just don’t think we are going to be able to go out there and just count on scoring in the 80s.”
When Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams, two vocal and defensive leaders, were drafted to the WNBA, the Huskies had to fill two glaring holes. Collier made it her offseason mission to become the defensive stopper for the team underneath the basket.
“Gabby was so good on defense and she was in the post position,” Collier said of the importance to improve her defensive game. “I kind of felt that responsibility that we have to have someone else be a good post defender and someone to take care of the lane a little bit. I definitely had that in mind coming into the season.”
The offseason work has paid dividends. Auriemma said that Collier’s production this season — 20 points and 10 rebounds per game — has been some of the best he has seen in a long time.
“I would want to compare her season-long performance, especially against the best teams on our schedule,” Auriemma said. “The best teams on our schedule, I think she averaged 20 (points) and 12 (rebounds). It’s not like she’s doing it against players and teams that aren’t very good. I would want to find out which player had more of an impact on her team in every game and was more consistent at both ends of the floor than Pheesa was this year. That’s the kind of year she’s had.”
Earlier in the season, Auriemma stressed that postseason play is when the role players of the team are most needed to step up. Now, with Samuelson officially out of the conference tournament with back spasms, that could not be any more necessary. All eyes will be on Megan Walker and Christyn Williams during the tournament.
“Whenever I get the corner 3, I’m going to knock it in,” said Walker, who leads the team with 40 percent accuracy from 3-point range. “But I feel like I’m just going to attack the basket and look for my shot more. (I’m going to) just play with the rest of my teammates and we are going to be OK.”
During the regular-season finale, the freshman duo of Williams and probable starter Olivia Nelson-Ododa propelled UConn to a tight 57-47 victory at USF. Williams’ scoring and Nelson-Ododa’s defense played a major role in securing the win.
Williams said she enjoys playing in difficult moments.
“I love situations like that,” said Williams, who was named the conference Freshman of the Year. “That is why I play basketball. I live for the big games and the big crowds. I think it’s so much fun.”
Today, against East Carolina, the Huskies take on a team they dismantled 118-55 on Feb. 6. Every UConn starter had double-digit points, with Samuelson leading the way with 31. As a team, UConn shot 57 percent from the field and 46 percent from the 3-point line.
Lashonda Monk is the best player for the Pirates. A Third Team All-Conference selection, she was the only ECU player honored by the AAC.
Monk leads her team with 13.1 points and 3.4 assists per game. She also has the ability to steal the ball, averaging four a night.
If the Huskies advance, they will play a 4 p.m. semifinal on Sunday. Should UConn win that game, the championship awaits at 7 p.m. on Monday.
Auriemma said as long as Collier continues her dominance, the team will be in good shape.
“If Pheesa can shut down everybody she guards and she can get 40 (points) every night, we won’t miss a beat,” Auriemma said with a wide smile.
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