UNCASVILLE, CT -- Geno Auriemma had a simple solution to UConn women’s basketball’s problem of not having Katie Lou Samuelson for the AAC Tournament.
“If [Napheesa Collier] can shut down everyone she guards and she can get 40 every night, we won’t miss a beat,” Auriemma joked ahead of the opener against ECU.
Auriemma didn’t get 40 points from Collier in the first game. Instead, he had to settle for 37 from his senior star that is peaking at exactly the right time.
Collier followed up a spectacular regular season in which she averaged 20.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and an AAC Player of the Year Award by reaching another level in the conference tournament. The senior totaled 28.3 points and 13.0 rebounds over the three games en route to the AAC Tournament Most Outstanding Player Award.
“The word for her is phenomenal. In every game. That’s even probably an understatement,” Crystal Dangerfield said. “What she does for our team can’t be matched by anybody else and I’m glad she’s on my team. That’s for sure.”
What was even more impressive was that Collier did it without her running mate and fellow senior Samuelson, who missed the tournament with a back injury.
“She stepped up really big,” Samuelson said of Collier. “She needed to do a lot for us. She knew that, we all knew that, she really stepped up to the occasion and I think everyone’s really proud of what she did and as a team, we can do what we need to do but if she’s playing like that it makes everything a lot easier for everyone.”
However, the reserved and soft-spoken Collier was quick to distribute credit to everybody but herself for stepping up in Samuelson’s absence.
“As hard as it is to play without Lou, I thought we did a really great job,” Collier said. “I thought we had a lot of different people step up, especially some younger guys I thought did really well. When you have someone go down, whoever it is, you have to have other people step up. The show has to go on and I thought we played really well.”
Where Collier was short on praise for herself, Auriemma was more than happy to heap it on for her.
“She is the best player in the country. Let’s put it this way, I’m open to suggestions for who’s had a better year. You can try to convince me and I’ll be open-minded about it. Who rebounds better? Who plays better defense? Who scores more? Who’s more durable and plays 40 minutes every night? I would like to know.
“And who’s put up the kind of numbers she’s put up in the biggest games we’ve played? I’m open-minded. You can convince me if there’s someone out there whose done better than her than I’m all for it. I just don’t see it. But she’s not the obvious choice. But it’s okay. She’s my choice.”
On a night when Auriemma and Central Florida head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson didn’t see eye-to-eye on much — Auriemma took exception to UCF playing hard even after he subbed out his regular starters, and the two had an acrimonious exchange in the handshake line — there was no daylight between them on Collier.
“She’s the best player in the nation,” Abrahamson-Henderson told reporters following the game.
The fact that Collier stepped up in the big moment is no surprise to Auriemma or her teammates. Because she has been preparing for it since the team practiced for the first time back in October.
“Not every kid deserves it because not every kid is willing to work every day from October to March to prepare for that moment,” Auriemma said. “They just want to be in that moment and they hope they’re good enough for that moment. Well Pheesa doesn’t go into any big game going ‘Well I hope I’m good enough for this moment.’ She knows she good enough because she prepares every day for that moment. So she just goes into the game like ‘I’m having fun, you’re panicking. Why? Because you’re not prepared for this and I am.’
“That’s it in a nutshell. That’s why she deserves everything she gets.”
And when UConn begins its quest for a 12th national championship in two weeks, in a year where many are expecting the Huskies to slip, there’s nobody Auriemma would rather have than Collier.
“I’ll take Pheesa any day. Anywhere. In any game. Against anybody.”