Since UConn women’s basketball lost to Oregon in early February, there’s been a noticeable improvement in sophomore center Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s performance. She now looks to be embracing her play-making ability which has resulted in three consecutive games with double-digit points, a mark she only hit three times in the previous eight contests.
She also looks more comfortable on the court and head coach Geno Auriemma believes that comes from her new-found stance on proper preparation.
“It’s no mystery,” he said. “Ever since the Wednesday after the Oregon game, Liv has been completely different than at any time since she got here at Connecticut, in terms of what her practice habits are, how she’s approaching every practice, how she’s approaching every drill, how she’s going about her daily preparation to play, and it shows in the games.”
Auriemma had declared Nelson-Ododa the most important player on the team earlier in the season and the sophomore’s combined numbers in the team’s three losses — 18 points on 9-25 shooting — show how much the Huskies rely on her to lead by example. While it’s unfair to place the blame of those defeats on Nelson-Ododa, it’s fair to wonder if any of those games would’ve gone differently had she made a bigger impact.
The Huskies’ coach backed his player on Tuesday, saying that despite Nelson-Ododa’s rough stats over those three games, her struggles weren’t entirely her own fault.
“She’s going to need some help down there,” Auriemma said. “To her defense, it’s pretty hard to be successful when in some of those big games, we shoot 20 percent from the floor. It’ll be interesting that when those shots start dropping and she’s more one on one in the post, how those things change. All of a sudden she becomes a better player. So yeah, she’s going to need a little bit of help.”
Auriemma knows a few strong practices and games doesn’t make Nelson-Ododa one of the nation’s top post players, but he thinks she has that potential. He pushes her to focus on the little things to develop her game and believes if she can get those down, everything else will follow.
“Right now, I’m just working on her. Working on getting her in the right mindset to make little victories like not getting herself out of the game with fouls the other day after she got her third and staying with it and finishing through contact. Those are learning things,” Auriemma said. “She’s got to find her own identity as to how the game’s going to be played for her. And she’s going to keep getting better and better.”
Unfortunately for those monitoring Nelson-Ododa’s development, it may be difficult to evaluate her progress due to the poor quality of the opponents on UConn’s remaining schedule. The Huskies will face all AAC teams over their next eight games (assuming they reach the conference tournament championship) then will head to the NCAA tournament where they’re unlikely to be tested until the Elite Eight or Final Four.
Regardless of what happens, losing to Oregon looks to be exactly what Olivia Nelson-Ododa needed to find her motivation and realize how great she is when she practices like she plays.
Last Monday’s loss to South Carolina gave UConn their third loss of the season and dropped them to No. 6 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll. With their fall in the rankings, the Huskies’ streak of 253 straight weeks in the top five that dates back to February 2007 came to an end. For reference, Louisiana Tech holds the record for the second-longest streak in the top five, staying there for 96 weeks.
Coach Auriemma responded to the news in typical fashion:
“I know. I couldn’t sleep last night,” he said, dripping of sarcasm. “I went to go see somebody this morning and they assured me that it’s okay. I really struggled, though. It was really hard. I went to the drug store, I got some medicine, I went to go see somebody. They told me ‘It’s okay. It’s okay.’ So I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that this too shall pass.”
Since Batouly Camara came to UConn as a transfer from Kentucky, her time in Storrs has been marked by injury.
In the summer of 2016, she went under the knife to fix a “pre-existing” shoulder issue. After sitting out the entire 2016-17 season due to transfer rules, Camara suffered a knee bruise in preseason and missed the first seven games of the year.
She suffered another knee injury last season after stepping on a teammate during practice and was forced to miss the next six games. Most recently, Camara underwent a left knee scope prior to the start of the current campaign and her recovery kept her sidelined until February.
The fifth-year senior has only played in two games so far this season and her injury-plagued history has left coach Auriemma with realistically-low expectations for her physical performance going forward.
“It’s not the same. It’s not remotely the same,” he said. “She struggles to get up and down the floor, you can see it when she’s in the game. You can see it at practice every single day. So whatever she was at one point, it’s been a real struggle to get back to that point and it’s not even close to being that. It’s unfortunate that that’s the way it played out. It’s been one injury after another since she’s been here. But you can’t control that.”
Though she’s averaged just 1.36 points and 1.18 rebounds in 50 games during her UConn career, Auriemma made it a point to note that Camara’s impact stretches far beyond the basketball court.
“Very positive, very upbeat, very energetic. Just a lot of life in her. It does carry over. It does kind of infect the rest of the team,” he said. “In that respect, even though it hasn’t been on the court statistically, she’s been a big contributor.”