When Katie Lou Samuelson went down awkwardly on a rebound in the season opener against Cal, she instantly knew something wasn’t right.
“I sprain this ankle a lot and usually just get up and walk and after a couple steps it’s fine,” she said. “Coach knows that, [athletic trainer Janelle Francisco] knows that, so nobody was sending in a sub or having a trainer run over because I usually walk it off but it felt different than a normal sprain.”
Samuelson made a beeline for the bench with a bad limp and quickly went into the locker room. When she finally returned to the bench with ice on her foot, it was clear she wasn’t coming back.
As much as she wanted to play, Samuelson was hopeful resting it would help her get back for the team’s west coast swing that included a pseudo-homecoming game at UCLA.
“I was thinking of the upcoming trip and that if I sat out the second half I’d have a good chance to play in that,” she said. “But things changed after that.”
Despite missing four games due to the injury, all signs point to Samuelson returning for the Huskies’ clash with Notre Dame on Sunday.
“We’ve got one more practice tomorrow, then we’ve got shootaround Sunday morning. We’ll see how that goes,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “She’s expecting to play, I’m expecting her to play, so barring anything unforeseen, that’s the plan.”
Samuelson, however, was a little more cautious when discussing her status for the game.
“I think it just has to do with whether I re-tweak it or anything that could set me back a little bit. We just want to make sure it’s fully healed,” she said. “I would like to [play] but it depends on tomorrow’s practice, getting through a full practice and seeing what the doctor says.”
A silver lining in losing Samuelson was getting to see how the team performed without her. By all measures, they passed the test with flying colors, winning the four games by an average of 27 points.
“Not having her when you look at some of the scores of our games and what we’ve been able to do, it’s been really good,” Auriemma said. “It hasn’t looked good at times but there’s been stretches where it’s looked really good and it’s only going to look better down the road when we get Lou back into the swing of things.”
Much of that had to do not only with the play of Azura Stevens — who averaged 16.5 points per game and 11.8 rebounds per game in her four starts — but the team’s mentality as a whole.
“I think the biggest thing was how the next person stepped right up and Z fit right in there, did whatever she could and played great over her trip. She showed how valuable she is to this team,” Samuelson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. We had everyone ready to go. Having that confidence from her and from every player that—no matter who goes down—we’re going to be ready to go.”
However, her absence mostly highlighted the impact she has on the team.
“Having Lou on the floor changes everything that we do because she kind of bridges that gap between our inside guys and our perimeter guys,” Auriemma said. “Right now we really don’t have anyone else that does that.”
As crazy as it might sound, getting arguably their top player back should only help UConn going forward.
“Getting her back in the lineup is a big boost to everyone, emotionally, physically, all those things,” Auriemma said. “When you look at the Stanford game, Lou was probably the best player on the floor for long stretches of that game, even without shooting the ball great.”
But as well as the Huskies handled not having their star player, it’s not something they want to deal with moving forward, especially with so much of the season remaining.
“It’s December 1st today. There’s four months left in this season,” Auriemma said. “I don’t know that we want to roll the dice and risk it all on Sunday afternoon.”