Who's UConn's sixth man? It's freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa
Albany, N.Y. — UConn coach Geno Auriemma joked this week that there's no way he could possibly ever use Olivia Nelson-Ododa's name and "imposing" in the same sentence.
But Nelson-Ododa, the slightly built 6-foot-4 freshman, had a presence, nevertheless, in the Huskies' two games in the Albany Regional.
Nelson-Ododa is currently UConn's sixth man but also started four games earlier in the month when senior All-American Katie Lou Samuelson missed time with a back injury.
On Sunday, Nelson-Ododa played 7 minutes, 59 seconds of the Huskies' 80-73 victory over top-seeded Louisville, spelling Samuelson again, this time when Samuelson was in foul trouble.
"It changes what we look like," Auriemma said of Nelson-Ododa's contributions during Friday's regional semifinal win over UCLA. "Obviously, against their size and their athletic ability ... they're just bigger than us at every position on the front line. So putting Liv in there changes what we look like.
"We look long and it's kind of disruptive and she's able to just by her presence ... I think she was a big, big factor in (Friday's) game, even without having to score a lot of points or do anything spectacular on the stat sheet."
Nelson-Ododa had the same effect Sunday. She came in for the final 1:24 in the first half and blocked a shot by Louisville's Jazmine Jones at the buzzer, preserving UConn's 41-34 lead.
In the second half, Nelson-Ododa entered the game with 2:57 to play in the third quarter when Samuelson picked up her fourth foul. UConn led 64-57 with 7:22 remaining in the game when Nelson-Ododa, by virtue of her wingspan, caused a Louisville turnover as the Cardinals' Asia Durr tried to drive the baseline from left to right but was forced to get rid of the ball, making a bad pass.
Nelson-Ododa, the only player to enter the lineup in the regional other than the starting five, heads to the first Final Four of her career.
"Olivia has gotten a lot better," fellow UConn freshman Christyn Williams said. "Just her presence on the floor, she's big, she gets a lot of rebounds, blocked shots. So it's a huge game-changer when she's in the paint."
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin tweeted early Saturday morning to congratulate the Kentucky men's basketball team for reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.
Louisville women's coach Jeff Walz followed with a response a few hours later, to remind the governor that his team had earned that same distinction, meeting UConn on Sunday with a trip to the Final Four on the line.
"@GovMattBevin thought you might want to know you have a group of young women @UofLWBVB that will be playing in the Elite 8 Sunday also. I'll make sure to let my players know you said congrats!"
"I was just trying to be helpful," Walz said in a press conference later that day. "I mean, you know, it's our second year in a row. We went to a Final Four last year and I'm not sure he knew there was a women's basketball team at Louisville or in the state.
"I thought, 'You know what, these young women are pretty impressive' and I think, as our governor, if you're going to tweet at a men's basketball team at any school, you should at least have someone hopefully letting you know that, 'Hey, there are women that play, too.'"
Walz, the Louisville coach, asked his thoughts when Durr, the Cardinals' All-American, missed a pair of free throws with 20.3 seconds left that would have cut UConn's deficit to two:
"(Stuff) happens. That's what I was thinking. You know, I go to a ton of recruiting and I see someone get fouled and someone yelling, 'You gotta make it. You gotta make it.' No kidding. Asia didn't go up there with any intent to not make two free throws. It happens. ... That's part of the game."
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UConn took another significant step toward rejoining the Big East Conference. Big East presidents voted to extend an invitation to UConn during a conference call on Monday, according to CBS Sports Network.