Last season, freshman guard Christyn Williams introduced herself to the world with a 28-point performance at Notre Dame to help UConn women’s basketball knock off the then-defending national champions.
When the current reigning champs come to the XL Center on Thursday night, the Huskies’ other sophomore will have a chance to make a similar statement.
At this point, Olivia Nelson-Ododa is far more established than Williams was. The 6-foot-5 center started every game of the AAC Tournament last season with Katie Lou Samuelson out and is one of three players to start all 12 games for UConn this season.
One of the team’s leaders, Nelson-Ododa is nearly averaging a double-double at 13.0 points and 9.4 rebounds per game while ranking second in the nation with 4.5 blocks per contest. At her current pace, Nelson-Ododa will shatter the Huskies’ single-season block record of 147, held by Kiah Stokes.
A strong performance from Nelson-Ododa won’t be so much an introduction but a statement — one that would establish her as one of the best centers in the country.
She hasn’t faced a challenge like Baylor quite yet. The Lady Bears revolve around the 6-foot-4 Lauren Cox, a 2019 AP Third Team All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Despite being just two games removed from a foot injury, Cox is still regarded as one of the best — if not the best center in the nation.
UConn lacks another post player with Nelson-Ododa’s combination of size and athleticism, which means the task of matching up with Cox falls on the sophomore’s shoulders. However, Nelson-Ododa didn’t make too much of the individual matchup.
“I think in terms of it being a big game, we all know that,” she said. “We put pressure on ourselves to rise up to that.”
Last season in the Huskies’ loss to Baylor, Nelson-Ododa played just four minutes and only showed up on the box score with a foul. She reflected on that game and said the moment was too big for her at the time. But once she shifted back to the present, Nelson-Ododa moved the focus off herself and onto the team.
“It’s a different team, both teams this year,” she said. “What we’ve been doing in practice and stuff is going to be really key in terms of how we play tomorrow.”
Around Connecticut, Nelson-Ododa is already a well-established name. But if she wants national recognition as one of the elite post players in the country, Nelson-Ododa will have no better opportunity to earn it than on Thursday night.
“For all the time Liv’s been at Connecticut, tomorrow is probably going to be her toughest challenge since she’s been here and I’m kind of looking forward to it,” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Either tomorrow she’s going to step up or tomorrow she’s going to struggle. Either way, she’s going to come out of there knowing a lot more about herself than she does now.”
Do high-ranked games matter?
Each year around the time UConn prepares to play the best teams on its non-conference schedule, the same question gets asked: How much do these games really mean? The answer depends on who you ask.
Christyn Williams doesn’t think the importance of the game should be down played just because it’s out of conference. There’s still plenty to play for outside of that.
“Well, I think it is a big game so we should treat it as such,” she said. “Whether win or lose, we still have a lot to learn from it because it is an early game but I do think it’s a big game.”
“I think we have a lot to prove actually,” Williams added later. “I don’t really think people — you know, since Lou and Phee graduated they’re kind of like ‘Oh.’ I think this is a good test for us.”
On the other end of the spectrum is Auriemma. The end goal for him is to win a national championship and if that happens, nothing that went on during the course of the season actually matters. At the same time, a team’s performance in January doesn’t say much about how they’ll perform once March comes around.
“We’ve been in so many of these over the years where we won these games and won national championships at the end or we lost these games and we won national championships at the end and everything else in between,” Auriemma said. “What happens tomorrow if we win has maybe no effect on us going forward. If we lose, it has maybe no effect on us going forward. I don’t know. I like to just say that we have a game tomorrow against a really good team and just leave it at that.”
In reality, the truth is probably somewhere in between. UConn’s ultimate goal is always going to be about winning the final game of the season. A loss to Baylor (or Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, etc.) won’t automatically eliminate the Huskies from doing so.
But a loss would affect the seeding, which can make the path to the national title more difficult. If UConn is ranked as the No. 1 overall seed, it will (in theory) have the easiest road to the Final Four. But if the Huskies drop a few games like last season and end up as a two-seed, hypothetically they might have to travel to Portland for the regional and play Oregon in a de-facto road game for the right to go to New Orleans.
Last season showed that the Selection Committee will allow UConn no margin of error. The Huskies were given a two-seed due to “strength of schedule” despite having a stronger SoS than Mississippi State, who were a No. 1 seed.
With a win against Baylor, UConn would tie the NCAA record for consecutive home wins with 99 in a row set by... the UConn Huskies. The last loss on their home court came against Notre Dame on March 23, 2013 in the Big East Tournament Final at the XL Center. However, the Lady Bears were the last team to knock off UConn in Hartford in the regular season when they did so earlier that season on Feb. 18.
Nine months after tearing her achilles in the EuroLeague Championship Game, superstar Breanna Stewart will make her return to basketball where she first built her legacy. USA Basketball announced Stewart will be on the roster for the national team’s exhibition game against UConn on Jan. 27 along with fellow former Huskies Sue Bird, Tina Charles and Diana Taurasi. Jen Rizzotti will be on the bench as an assistant coach for the game as well.
The matchup will be broadcast on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. from the XL Center with another former UConn star in Rebecca Lobo on the call along with Eric Frede and Holly Rowe.
The school also announced it will honor the 2009 and 2010 national championship teams prior to the game as well. It appears most of the former players from those squads are expected to be in attendance, including Maya Moore, who announced last February she was stepping away from basketball indefinitely.