Olivia Nelson-Ododa has tried to forget about the last time UConn and Baylor squared off. She took that memory, shoved it deep into the back of her brain and hoped she’d never have to retrieve it.
“I haven’t really thought about that game, really,” she said. “Until now.”
It was Jan. 9, 2020 at the XL Center. The then-sophomore center went 0-8 from the field and failed to score as the Huskies fell 74-58.
“That’s where Liv is right now,” Geno Auriemma admitted afterwards. “This game right here, this is where Liv is right now.”
Now, over a year since hitting that low point, Nelson-Ododa will have a shot at redemption when UConn takes on Baylor in the Elite Eight. The two teams were supposed to meet during the regular season only for the matchup to be canceled after Bears head coach Kim Mulkey tested positive for COVID-19.
While Baylor no longer has star center Lauren Cox, its frontcourt still consists of 6-foot-2 junior NaLyssa Smith, 6-foot-3 junior Queen Egbo and 6-foot-5 freshman Hannah Gusters.
“If you watch Baylor play, you just can’t be anything but impressed with their size and their physicality and their athletic ability,” Auriemma said.
But unlike the last meeting, the weight won’t all be on Nelson-Ododa’s shoulders as UConn’s only legitimate post option.
“Last year, the entire defensive assignment was pretty much Liv versus the rest of them,” Auriemma said on Sunday.
This season, Aaliyah Edwards has helped create a formidable frontcourt tandem with Nelson-Ododa. The two fit well on the court together: Nelson-Ododa brings length, finesse and shot-blocking ability while Edwards adds a strong, physical presence in the paint.
“I think their styles are different which makes them very difficult to defend because they bring two different styles of play,” Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey said. “They complement each other very well.”
Though Edwards has been in the rotation for the entire season, she’s taken her game to a new level in the NCAA Tournament, averaging 18 points on 22-26 shooting with 6.7 rebounds per game in three games in San Antonio. Her emergence as a super-efficient scoring threat in the paint has provided Nelson-Ododa with more freedom on offense.
The result? The junior’s scoring has increased from 12.5 points per game during regular season and Big East Tournament to 14.3 in the NCAA Tournament, while her assists have jumped from 2.8 per to game to 4.3 per game over that same span.
“We call her our point forward. She’s not really our center. She does everything for the team,” Bueckers said after the win over Syracuse. “What she does for this team, it’s essential. She does so much.”
Nelson-Ododa and Edwards have cleaned up on the glass as well. UConn is out-rebounding NCAA Tournament opponents 127-82 with the two players responsible for over a third of those boards (46). They’ve especially cleaned up on the offensive glass, extending a possession 21 times.
Together, Nelson-Ododa and Edwards make each other better. Last season, Nelson-Ododa was saddled with all the responsibilities down low which often meant trying to be something that she wasn’t. Now, Edwards can be the bruiser while Nelson-Ododa plays to her strengths.
“Having somebody like Aaliyah, that’s an element that we didn’t have last season,” Auriemma said. “That allows Liv an opportunity to be more of a distributor for us and be someone who can occupy one of their defenders at the high post and and gives us some defensive flexibility.”
This isn’t the same Nelson-Ododa as last season, either. Previously, she’d struggle any time she went up against someone that could match her size. Yet Nelson-Ododa finished with 17 points and eight rebounds on Syracuse’s 6-foot-7 freshman Kamilla Cardoso while last game, the junior grabbed 11 rebounds and dished out seven assists against Iowa’s Monika Czinano.
Though neither of those players are near the caliber of Baylor’s bigs, it wasn’t long ago that Nelson-Ododa would’ve struggled regardless. Now, there’s no better opportunity for the junior to redeem herself.
If Nelson-Ododa can play well and help UConn reach its 13th straight Final Four, she’ll finally put last year’s Baylor game behind her for good. Instead of it being one of the defining games in her college career, it’ll be no more than a footnote in her development.
This is the opportunity Nelson-Ododa has been building towards for the last 15 months. She wasn’t ready for the moment last January, but considering how far she’s come since then combined with the addition of Edwards, the time is now for Nelson-Ododa to make her mark.