Samuelson ready to get back to work for UConn in NCAA tournament

Storrs — Katie Lou Samuelson was a cheering, towel-waving, confetti-throwing member of the UConn women's basketball team during its recent three-games-in-three-days stretch in the American Athletic Conference tournament at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Samuelson, the 6-foot-3 senior All-American who suffered back spasms during Senior Day on March 2 against Houston, still had fun watching her younger teammates develop and help the Huskies win another AAC title.

"I love my team and I love the game," Samuelson said Thursday.

Now, after 19 days rest, Samuelson is ready for her final NCAA run.

Second-seeded UConn (31-2) meets No. 15 Towson (20-12) in the first round Friday at Gampel Pavilion (approximately 6:30 p.m., ESPN2). No. 7 Rutgers (22-9) faces No. 10 Buffalo (23-9) in the first game of a doubleheader at 4:30.

UConn is looking for its 12th straight Final Four appearance and 12th national championship.

"She's been kind of given leeway as to 'Hey, how much do you think you can do and how much are you willing to try to do?'" UConn coach Geno Auriemma said of Samuelson. "Lou said, 'I want to play,' so she's gonna play. She might even tell me when she's going in and when she's coming out and what plays we're running. I don't really care at this point."

Although it was originally a blow for UConn to play the league tournament without Samuelson, who is averaging 18.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game and has 75 3-point field goals, it somehow morphed into a positive.

While Samuelson got rest and treatment, her teammates concocted ways to win without her ... and got progressively better at it.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa, a 6-4 freshman center, started the four games in Samuelson's absence. She averaged 5.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks during that time, her finest effort coming in an AAC tournament first-round victory over East Carolina when she finished with 17 rebounds and five blocks.

Senior Napheesa Collier averaged 28.3 points and 13.0 rebounds per game in the tournament to be named Most Outstanding Player, while junior Crystal Dangerfield, sophomore Megan Walker and freshman Christyn Williams were also named to the all-tournament team.

Auriemma said at the time and reiterated Thursday that he believes UConn became a more well-rounded team without Samuelson.

"We started out a little rocky going against East Carolina, but we got better every day and we did get some great contributions from our young players," Auriemma said. "With Lou back in the lineup, I think we're better equipped to deal with some things that might happen that maybe we weren't as equipped to deal with before this happened.

"So I do think, in theory, we're a much better team than we were."

Samuelson and Collier were the two players to represent UConn on the dais Thursday.

Samuelson smiled when addressing her friendship with Collier and said that the duo received a "touching message" from former UConn great Breanna Stewart, telling them to kick everyone's butt.

"It just shows no matter if you leave UConn, it feels like an army always coming out to get everyone," Samuelson said of the crowd of alums who support the Huskies.

Samuelson was to the point, at first, however, when asked if she'll play Friday.

"Absolutely. I feel good. I've been doing more and more every day and so that's where I'm at right now," she said. "... It's pretty rough to be sitting out at the end of your senior year, but I'm very lucky to be getting another chance to play."

She later detailed that she's felt good physically at practice with the exception of trying to get back into game shape and also that she's learned from watching her teammates from the sideline.

Now, she's eager to have an impact on the court again.

"Now (Olivia) has the confidence and there is always some type of blessing with everything and that was something really good that came out of watching the team and the way we played in that tournament," Samuelson said. "... I have had a lot of experience playing and being out there again to play with Phee and Crystal ... our chemistry is pretty good, so I am excited to get back out there."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

NO. 2 UCONN VS. NO. 15 TOWSON

NCAA first round

Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs

Tip: 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2).

Records: Towson 20-12 overall; UConn 31-2.

Last game: Towson beat Drexel 53-49 in the Colonial Athletic Association final March 16; UConn beat Central Florida 66-45 in the American Athletic Conference final March 11.

Probable starters: Towson, 6-3 F Nukiya Mayo (14.5 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 1.5 bpg), 5-8 G Kionna Jeter (17.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.6 spg), 5-11 G Ryan Holder (5.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg), 5-9 G Qierra Murray (8.4 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 4.5 apg), 6-4 C Maia Lee (3.7 ppg, 6.8 rpg).

UConn, 6-1 F Megan Walker (12.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg), 6-3 G Katie Lou Samuelson (18.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.8 apg), 6-2 F Napheesa Collier (20.9 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.4 bpg), 5-5 G Crystal Dangerfield (13.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 6.1 apg, 1.6 spg), 5-11 G Christyn Williams (10.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg).

Noteworthy: Towson, located about 14 miles from Baltimore, was 9-21 last season under first-year coach Diane Richardson. The Tigers more than doubled their win total this season, earning Richardson — "Coach Rich," as junior guard Qierra Murray called her Thursday — the Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the year honor. Still, however, Towson was the fourth seed headed into the CAA tournament and not at all the favorite to earn its first NCAA tournament berth. The Tigers defeated No. 5 Delaware 59-49 in the quarterfinals, No. 9 Hofstra 69-48 in the semis and No. 2 Drexel 53-49 in the final. "I am a big believer in setting goals and reaching goals ... we knew very much so that we could win the tournament because of the time and work we put in through the season and how hard they played," Richardson said. "We had a tough nonconference schedule that prepared us for that. They went in determined to do that because we planned that the entire season." Nukiya Mayo averaged 16.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per game to earn CAA tournament Most Outstanding Player honors. It is the program's first winning season since 2011-12. "It was a lot of ups and downs last season," Towson senior center Maia Lee said. "But this year, we could just tell we had a lot more heart. We're together more on and off the court and it really correlated to the basketball court, which was very beneficial to us." ... Towson has five players on the roster who are 6-foot-3 or taller, including 6-5 freshman reserve center Janeen Camp, who leads the team with 52 blocked shots. ... At Delaware on Jan. 6, Towson had a season-high 63 rebounds, the most rebounds by a CAA team this season. The Tigers finished fifth in the nation in offensive rebounds per game (17) and 16th in rebounds per game (42.79). ... UConn and Towson met once previously, on Nov. 30, 2011, at the XL Center in Hartford, with UConn winning 92-31. ... UConn enters the NCAA tournament as a No. 2 seed — in the Albany Regional — for the first time since 2006. The Huskies are 18-2 in the tournament as a No. 2. The Huskies are ranked second in the country in the Associated Press poll, but failed to receive a No. 1 seed from the NCAA tournament committee. Said UConn senior Napheesa Collier of the seed: "It doesn't change how we're going to prepare for each game; we still try to prepare for games the same. Obviously, we don't agree with it, but there is nothing we can do about it. I think it does put a little more of a fire under us."

— Vickie Fulkerson

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