Freshmen abound as UConn women take on Buffalo in NCAA second round
Storrs — Historically speaking, UConn coach Geno Auriemma has put together a substantial series of quips, the comedic type, regarding his freshmen. There was this one from the recent American Athletic Conference tournament, for instance:
"We have two freshmen in the starting lineup," Auriemma said that day from Mohegan Sun Arena. "I don't expect them to be able to guard anybody and they never let me down."
Now, with No. 2-seeded UConn heading into the second round of the NCAA tournament at Gampel Pavilion on Sunday against No. 10 Buffalo (7 p.m., ESPN), Auriemma has some company in his story-telling with Buffalo coach Felisha Legette-Jack.
Legette-Jack, who has seven freshmen on her roster, said in an interview session prior to the Bulls' first-round victory over Rutgers that she caught a few of her newcomers walking around Gampel with pens and paper, looking for Auriemma, the 11-time national champion, to get his autograph.
She added this account from breakfast that morning.
"I saw one of my freshmen this morning and I saw two doughnuts on her plate," Legette-Jack said with a grin. "I was like, 'All right, go eat them doughnuts; Rutgers' 55 (press) is gonna jack your tail up.' And I was just joking. I forgot she was a freshman. And when she finished eating, I saw those two doughnuts still on her plate.
"The poor freshman probably hasn't eaten all day today, so I'm gonna have to figure out a way to tell her I was joking."
Auriemma, the part-time standup comic, was posed the following question: What if you had seven freshmen on your roster?
"Freshmen are not bad," Auriemma said, beginning his reply with the utmost seriousness before crafting the punch line. "Today? In my state of mind and at my age coaching? That would be like if my daughter said, 'Listen, you're in charge of (Auriemma's) grandkids for the next three months.' As much as I love 'em, I don't think I'd want to do that.
"... I like to make fun of the freshmen because they have to be told everything every day, then tomorrow, too, and then the next day."
Just look how far the rookies have come, though.
UConn's Christyn Williams, the AAC Freshman of the Year, was also named to the league's all-tournament team, helping lead the Huskies while senior All-American Katie Lou Samuelson missed the tournament with a back injury.
Williams, a 5-foot-11 guard, has started all 34 career games at UConn (32-2), averaging 11.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. She shot 8-for-12 in her NCAA tournament debut Friday night, a 110-61 dismantling of Towson, finishing with 21 points, four assists and four 3-point field goals.
Williams, who hails from Little Rock, Ark., was the Gatorade, WBCA and Naismith National Player of the Year as a high school senior.
"He's on every little thing," Williams said Saturday of Auriemma. "Sometimes it gets overwhelming. It's definitely something to get used to. (But) if he's not talking to me, that's a bad thing.
"It's been a rollercoaster, but I'm kind of settling in. I'm a freshman. I was still trying to learn my role. (Now), I'm kind of just playing."
UConn also has 6-4 freshman forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa, who started the first four games of her career in Samuelson's absence. Generally easygoing, as is Williams, Nelson-Ododa responded with 17 rebounds and five blocked shots in the Huskies' AAC tournament opener against East Carolina.
"You just have to keep in mind," Nelson-Ododa said, "whatever (Auriemma's) talking to you about, you have to just keep working on."
For Buffalo (24-9), 6-2 freshman forward Adebola Adeyeye started in Friday's win over Rutgers and finished with four points, five rebounds and a blocked shot in nine minutes.
The Bulls have nine players on their roster who gained experience in last year's tournament, reaching the Sweet 16, but Legette-Jack doesn't consider her team anything other than young. The six true freshmen (guard Finess Dickson is a redshirt freshman) rank as the fifth-most on any NCAA Division I women's roster in the country.
"They are great talents," Buffalo senior guard Cierra Dillard said of the learning curve undergone by her freshman teammates. "They just don't understand that the process of learning at the college level takes longer than they expect.
"I think that's the biggest thing, but you want that energy. You want to have those underclassmen that have that energy, but you are just like, 'Slow down, it is going to take awhile.'"
No. 2 UConn vs. No. 10 Buffalo
NCAA second round
Location: Gampel Pavilion, Storrs
Tip: 7 p.m. (ESPN).
Records: Buffalo 24-9 overall; UConn 32-2.
Last game: Buffalo beat Rutgers 82-71 in the first round Friday; UConn beat Towson 110-61 in the first round Friday.
Probable starters: Buffalo, 5-3 G Hanna Hall (6.6 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.1 spg), 5-9 G Cierra Dillard (25.1 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 5.7 apg, 2.8 spg), 5-10 G Theresa Onwuka (9.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.2 apg, 1.3 spg), 6-2 F Adebola Adeyeye (2.1 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.5 apg), 6-1 F Summer Hemphill (14.7 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.4 bpg).
UConn, 6-1 F Megan Walker (12.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg), 6-3 G Katie Lou Samuelson (18.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.9 apg), 6-2 F Napheesa Collier (21.0 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.5 bpg), 5-5 G Crystal Dangerfield (13.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.6 spg), 5-11 G Christyn Williams (11.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg).
Noteworthy: Buffalo, the Mid-American Conference tournament champion, reached the Sweet 16 a year ago as the No. 11 seed, stunning No. 6 South Florida (102-79) and No. 3 Florida State (86-64 on its home floor) before falling to South Carolina 79-63 in the program's first regional appearance in Albany. Bulls coach Felisha Legette-Jack makes it no secret that this team is not on the same plane as that one in terms of experience — "I can't justify it to these kids that we did it last year, so we have experience for this year," she said Saturday — but neither does she shy away from the challenge of competing against 11-time national champion UConn. "That's the message they know on a daily basis," Legette-Jack said. "Playing against the Lakers or a WNBA team or UConn, when the ball goes up in the air, you just have to be better than them for 40 minutes. We might win or they might win, but they're going to get our best effort." The Bulls are led by senior guard Cierra Dillard, named Most Valuable Player of the MAC tournament after averaging a team-best 24.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.0 steals. Dillard, who eclipsed the 2,000-point mark for her career on Feb. 27, has scored 20 or more points in 29 of the last 33 games, including Friday's win over Rutgers, and is ranked second in the nation in scoring. Dillard was espnW National Player of the Week on Jan. 14 and was named one of four finalists for the Dawn Staley Award, given to the nation's top guard. "They are a really good team, especially after last year they made a huge run in the tournament," UConn senior Katie Lou Samuelson said of Buffalo. "They feed off their point guard and for us we have to make sure we contain her and figure out how to play the rest of the game plan after that. They play with a lot of energy, a lot of passion and it should be a fun game." ... The winner of the UConn-Buffalo game will play in Albany on Friday against either No. 3 Maryland or No. 6 UCLA, which both won first-round games Saturday. Those two teams will meet Monday with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line. ... UConn has made 25 straight Sweet 16 appearances.
— Vickie Fulkerson