Blogs > Elm City to Eagleville

A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Samuelson, WIlliams earn WBCA honors once again

Quite the eventful day at Nationwide Arena beginning at about 8:30 a.m. with the always helpful meet and greet with the ESPN announce team.

Some of those interviews were used in my advance on the positionless basketball style that has helped UConn and Notre Dame thrived and more will be coming tomorrow about the elite group of juniors at this year's Final Four.

The day/night ended with Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams earning WBCA All-American honors. I can't recall a time when we weren't able to interview the UConn players even for a minute or two after the All-American presentation but it didn't happen today. Thankfully, we were able to get Geno Auriemma for a few minutes after the ceremony so we could attempt to give the story the play it deserves.

There was a portion of the blog that in anger I posted and regretted it regarding a person I deal with on a regular basis at UConn, that was completely wrong on my part and I apologize for not handling it in a more appropriate and professional manner.

On a lighter note, it was great to catch up with two of my favorite women's basketball people to interview - former Georgia coach Andy Landers, who now works for ESPN and Notre Dame associate head coach Carol Owens.

I was able to get some pretty good reactions from UConn players as well one Little Rock, Arkansas native about the buzz created by UConn signees Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Christyn Williams.

Many of the quotes are in one of the links above but since I wrote way too long on my notebook, I wasn't able to get some pretty good stuff from Azura' Stevens about Nelson-Ododa's performance at the dunk contest.

"It is amazing. Anytime a female is able to dunk, I think it is pretty cool because a lot of people don't think it can happen but especially to see her on the stage  at McDonald's it was really cool to see that and we are just excited to see her come here.

"I've never dunked before. I've tried it a couple of times but my hops aren't (good enough). It was really cool just to see we are getting that added (talent) next year and that is a good sign coming from a freshman (to be) to have that confidence on a big stage like that because that is what they are coming into here."

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Dangerfield's diligence results in breakout perfomance for UConn

The opening tip was just moments away when I turned to Roger Cleaveland,  the beat writer for the Waterbury Republican-American and after watching Crystal Dangerfield hit shot after shot during the warmups, I told him my gut was telling me that she was due for a breakout game.

The shooting percentages of the players in UConn's primary rotation heading into Monday night's Elite Eight game against defending national champion South Carolina looked like this - Gabby Williams 76.2, Napheesa Collier 70.3, Azura' Stevens 61.3, Kia Nurse 55.6, Katie Lou Samuelson 53.6, Megan Walker 53.3, Dangerfield  29.4. However, I liked Dangerfield's body language when she was taking open shots against Duke on Saturday. Still, I did not anticipate the first half that Dangerfield put together.

The sophomore guard went 5 for 5 from 3-point range and had 19 points at halftime topping her previous best mark in NCAA tournament play. Other than one play when she took her eye off an incoming pass resulting in an unforced turnover, it would be hard to find fault with Dangerfield's game and not just her shooting.

Dangerfield is on a team with players not afraid to show their emotions on the court especially the trio of Kia Nurse, Katie Lou Samuelson and Gabby Williams. However, Dangerfield isn't somebody who is going to let the world in on her current emotional state. When she hit shot after shot, she cracked a smile that I probably haven't seen from her (in a game or practice setting) since last year's practice in Orlando when she had a crossover move that left graduate assistant Chloe Pavlech struggling to stay on her feet. Her teammates and coaches started to chuckle and even Dangerfield cracked a smile - eventually.

"I wanted to be poised, stay level headed, not get too high or too low," Dangerfield said.

Like everything she set out to accomplish on Monday night, she did what she planned to do.

Dangerfield started the season by making 6 of 7 of her 3-point attempts in a win over Stanford on the same Nationwide Arena court where the Final Four is being played. Eight games into the season she was shooting 53 percent from 3-point territory with 45 assists and 14 turnovers. Before long, however, shin splints began to force Dangerfield to miss practice time. No part of her game appeared to suffer more than her shot. She was 1 for 10 in a Feb. 1 win over South Carolina, just 3 for 15 in back to back games against Louisville and Temple later in February.

It's been a long road but Dangerfield and her teammates said that she is in a perfect place right now as UConn heads to its record 11th straight Final Four.

"I am fortunate to be around her a little more often than you guys are but with her preparation, she has been preparing for the last couple of days, the last week or so and you could absolutely tell that she was on a roll," UConn senior guard Kia Nurse said.

A few notes from last night -

Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams will become the 20th and 21st UConn players to be a part of four Final Four teams (not including players sitting out the season as redshirts)

Geno Auriemma's first recruiting class didn't get to experience the thrill of being part of a Final Four team but the current freshmen will be the 30th straight UConn recruiting class to be a part of at least one Final Four team.

Kia Nurse recorded her 100th assist of the season giving UConn five players with at least 100 assists. It is the fourth time that has happened in program history and Nurse has been a part of three of those squads.

Gabby Williams recorded her 100th career blocked shot. She is currently at 997 career rebounds so I wasn't able to use the one statistical nugget I was looking forward to unveiling last night. The last player to have at least 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists and 300 steals is Miami's Shenise Johnson, who played at Miami from 2008-12. The last one to hit all of those marks in addition to 100 career blocked shots is UConn legend Maya Moore.

While UConn was dispatching South Carolina, incoming freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa was engaging in some March Madness of her own as she advanced to the finals of the dunk competition (as the only female competitor) at McDonald's All-American Game festivities (the game is set for tomorrow).

Fellow UConn signee Christyn Williams was part of the winning team in the skills competition.

Monday, March 19, 2018

No record-setting performance but still UConn heading back to Sweet 16

As game plans go, it was hard to fault what Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri and her coaching staff came up with heading into the second round NCAA tournament matchup against 11-time national champion UConn.

The Bobcats aren't known for taking the air out of the ball but after seeing the disasterous consequences of attempting to get into a full-court game with the Huskies thanks to UConn's record-breaking demolition of Saint Francis (Pa.), Quinnipiac tried to limit how many possessions UConn had and hope it could make enough shots to make things interesting.

For a quarter and a half, the strategy was working perfectly.

Paula Strautmane had just hit a 3-pointer to make it an 8-point game and on the next possession she was even more open that she was on the previous made basket. However. Quinnipiac's leader in 3-point percentage coming into the game, missed the open 3. UConn senior Kia Nurse came down the other end and connected on her 3-pointer. After Quinnipiac's Jen Fay (who had a team high 12 points) missed a 3, UConn senior Gabby Williams hit a pair of foul shots so instead of the Bobcats threatening to make it a one-possession game, the Huskies were up by 13. At halftime it was a 15-point game and Quinnipiac got no closer than 13 the rest of the way.

"When you play in the NCAA tournament, you are shocked when an open 3 doesn't go in because every time you make a mistake, some kid makes an open 3, you can put that in the bank," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "When those two didn't go in, I was probably the most surprised person in the building. This team has a knack of making a shot when we have to, making a play when we have to. We didn't get great performances from a lot of players tonight but that is going to happen, you have to be able to win no matter what the circumstances."

Quinnipiac helped to create those circumstances. The Bobcats struggled to deal with Napheesa Collier and Azura' Stevens in the low post and since Quinnipiac didn't start anybody over 6-feet tall, it was only natural that the Huskies would try to exploit the advantage they had inside.

Quinnipiac is hardly the first team to try to limit the number of offensive possessions for UConn, the No. 1 scoring team in the country, But unlike most teams that try to utilize that strategy and are left scrambling to avoid shot clock violations, the Bobcats were able to get the shots they wanted more often than not.

"Teams that like to play us like that don't really execute but I think they were really disciplined," UConn senior forward Gabby Williams said. "They score a lot of points per game so that is not like how they usually play but they were able to stay disciplined and I think that goes to show how well coached they are and what kind of players they have."

Another thing working in Quinnipiac's favor was that the Bobcats committed only seven turnovers and the Huskies managed just two points off those turnovers forcing UConn to have to score its points in the half court rather than scoring at will in transition. The Bobcats also deserve credit for opening things up and shooting the ball with more of a sense of urgency once it became a 20-point UConn lead in the third quarter indicating that the objective was not simply to try to make the final margin not get too much out of control but to give their team the best chance of success.

“It was a lot of fun playing in front of that many fans,' said Fay, who led the Bobcats with 12 points. "That was the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in front of. I think we gave them a run for their money, especially in the first half, we really made stuff difficult for them. Obviously, we didn’t get the outcome that we wanted, but it was fun.”

UConn heads to the regionals for the 25th year in a row as the Huskies are the only team to reach the Sweet 16 every year since the tournament moved to 64 teams in 1994. Quinnipiac has plenty of build on as Carly Fabbri is the only player who going into the game who is not expected back next season.

Friday, March 16, 2018

UConn's Williams a Sullivan Award semifinalist

It's not unusual for UConn's star players to be finalists or semifinalists for major basketball awards at this time of the year.

Right on cue, Gabby Williams and Katie Lou Samuelson joined Louisville's Asia Durr and A'ja Wilson of South Carolina as finalists for the Naismith Trophy.

The accolades were not done for Williams who recently was named one of the semifinalists for the Sullivan Award which is presented annually to the nation's premier amateur athlete.

Williams and Wilson are the only women's basketball players to make the list. Since 2000 the only women's basketball player to win the honor was UConn legend Breanna Stewart, who shared the award with Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds in 2015.

"I am not one to focus on individual awards but of course it is a huge honor. I grew up in the AAU world with basketball and track so it is (exciting)."

REMEMBER ME?There may be just a few people affiliated with the Central PA Elite AAU program checking out tomorrow's UConn/Saint Francis game.

UConn sophomore forward Kyla Irwin and Saint Francis freshman guard Karson Swogger were teammates on the AAU team coached by Tina Klotzbeecher-Thomas, the mother of Connecticut Sun forward Alyssa Thomas, and Irwin's mom Bethany, a former star at Branford High School. Red Flash freshman guard/forward Haley Thomas also played in the highly successful program but was never a teammate with Irwin.

"I first met Karson back in seventh or eighth grade and I played with her my last year, my junior year so it was a lot of fun," Irwin said. "I got to know her family so I am really excited to see them

"I think it will be exciting because there will be a lot of familiar faces on the team so it will be a cool experience."

Swogger has nothing but positive memories of her time as Irwin's teammate.

"Just how good she was and how much fun she was the play with," Swogger said. "It is going to be different playing with her and not against her.

"A lot of people are tweeting out good luck. It is always nice, I think people are excited to see us on the court together. She was great and Kyla's mom was the assistant so to have those two was amazing, they definitely pushed me and made me better. Alyssa Thomas, she came to one of our practices. Just to see her and she played with us for a little bit, it was a great experience.

"She (Bethany Irwin) is just like Kyla, she has a lot of energy and always bringing 100 percent effort.

"It is going to be fun. It is hard to beat them, they are 32-0 but to get to play them is awesome and not a lot of people can say that."

Thomas and Swogger are the only Saint Francis players not to start any games who average more than 10 minutes per game so they could both play significant roles against No. 1 UConn.

"I know my family and friends are all rooting for us, everybody around the school is super excited and supportive of us," Thomas said.

Much of the attention will be focused on Saint Francis' leading scorer Jessica Kovatch, the No. 2 scorer in NCAA Division I women's basketball play this season.

"It is obviously her scoring but I think her intensity really helps us because she gets everyone fired up and that is what is really important to us," Thomas said. "We are a very emotional team, we play emotional so whenever she gets going, it gets everybody else going."

Kovatch, who leads all Division I women's basketball player with 141 3-pointers, admits that emotion plays a huge role in how she plays.

"I am an emotional player, if any play happens I show my emotion a lot and it gets my teammates fired up," Kovatch said.

You will find some big time names on the list of top recruits in the class that Kovatch played in but none of them have scored more points than the 5-foot-9 native of Philipsburg, N.J. Even she is surprised as just how many points she has scored (the number is currently at 2,150 points) especially earlier in her career.

"I am used to playing a lot of minutes and scoring is easy in high school but when you come to college it is always different," Kovatch said. "Coming in I didn't think I'd be a starter or a leading scorer for the team but when I was embraced with that role because Coach Joe (Haigh) would come up to me and tell me (to score), giving me confidence as a freshman. It is a good role, I like it, my teammates give me the ball when I am open. We move the ball a lot but coming into Saint Francis, I didn't see myself being that go-to scorer."

ALONE AT THE TOPThis is the 25th tournament with a 64-team field and UConn is the only team to win in the first round in each tournament since it expanded to 64 teams in 1994.

Here's the list of the top win-loss marks since the tournament moved to 64 teams (not including today's games)

UConn 24-0
Duke 22-0
Tennessee 23-1
Stanford 22-2
Purdue 20-2
Notre Dame 20-3

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

UConn signee Christyn Williams named winner of Morgan Wootten Award

UConn signee Christyn Williams has won her second major national high school player of the year award.

Williams was named the winner of the Morgan Wootten Award, the award given out by the organizers of the McDonald's All-Americam Game.

Williams averaged 26.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocked shots as a senior at Central Arkansas Christian.

Williams, a 5-foot-11 guard, averaged 39 points, 15 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 2 steals and 1 blocked shot in three games in the Arkansas 4A state tournament highlighted by a season high 42 points in a 68-57 win in Friday's state title game.

Williams was previously named the winner of the Naismith national player of the year award.

In the take it for what it is worth department, a story in the Sydney Morning Herald lists Australia's Ezi Magbegor as a UConn commit. I haven't seen any reports that she has committed to UConn nor do I have any information that is the case but to say Magbegor and her family have kept a low profile in the recruiting process would be an understatement to say the least. I've made multiple efforts to get updates on her recruiting process through officials in Australia without success. I would think a commitment, if it hasn't already been made, should be coming shortly. She visited UCLA and UConn late last month.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Not too many surprises in this year's NCAA tournament bracket

There were a couple of minor surprises but all things considered, things sort of went according to script when the tournament bracket was released earlier tonight.

I've been seeing South Carolina as the No. 2 seed in UConn's bracket in the bracketology posts I've seen even though if were left up to me, I would have put South Carolina ahead of Texas in the seedings. I guess the committee wanted to avoid putting teams from the same conference as the top two seeds in one of the four regionals. Still, winning the SEC tournament with a win over previously undefeated Mississippi State should have carried more weight.

A couple of surprises in UConn's bracket was Quinnipiac being the No. 9 seed (I would have thought the Bobcats would have been somewhere from 10-12 on the seed line) and South Florida being placed in UConn's bracket for the third time in the last four seasons.

It would seem as if both team placements came down to geography as the only Florida team to host a subregional is Florida State so putting USF as the No. 6 there does make geographical sense. The next closest subregionals would be hosted by Tennessee and North Carolina State. Another way to look at it is that USF would have to get to the regional final before facing UConn.

Quinnipiac being a 9 seed was a bit of a stunner to me. I remember my boss including me on a group email a couple weeks back going through potential NCAA tournament teams and stories we might need to get ready for and he suggested the possibility of Quinnipiac being sent to UConn's subregional. I told him there was no way that would happen especially since the Bobcats didn't play a team with the top 100 RPI since four days before Christmas. Quinnipiac posted a win over Central Michigan, a team with the No. 15 RPI, and wins over top 40 RPI squads Northern Colorado and Dayton so I guess the seeding wasn't totally out of left field. It  certainly makes travel arrangements much easier at my paper rather than having a reporter get on a plane, they can drive to UConn. I was bummed to find out that my friend Bill Schweizer, who is retiring this season after a long and distinguishing run as the radio voice of Quinnipiac athletics, won't be doing Quinnipiac's games in the tournament. I spent many hours in the Yale Field press box with Bill when I helped with the coverage of the New Haven Ravens during the 1999 and 2000 seasons and I certainly wish him well in his retirement.

At first glance, it looks like Louisville drew the group of death with No. 2 Baylor (which to me should have been the highest of the No. 2 seeds and placed in Notre Dame's bracket), No. 3 Tennessee, No. 4 Stanford (a team with some losses likely attributed to missing players) and Missouri at No. 5.

Seeing Texas and Baylor on the other half of the bracket along with Mississippi State is probably just fine with UConn as teams with size in the post could make things difficult for the Huskies but there's plenty of basketball to be played and I know in the past when one bracket looks impossible, that tends to be the one where upsets wreak havoc.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

UConn signee Christyn Williams ends her high school career in style

What a day it was for future Husky Christyn Williams.

Friday began with Williams becoming the ninth UConn recruit (10th if you count Elena Delle Donne who never played for the Huskies) to be named the winner of the Naismith National High School Player of the Year. About 12 hours later she suited up for Central Arkansas Christian for the final time in the Arkansas 4A championship game against rival Riverview.

All Williams did was have her best scoring output of her senior season with 42 points to go with 11 rebounds, three steals and two blocked shots in the 68-57 win with UConn coach Geno Auriemma among those in attendance. She scored 28 of her team's 32 points in the second half as she was a part of her first state championship team.

According to the Arkansas high school record book, the 42 points is tied for the fifth most in the state playoffs for 5-person basketball since Arkansas utilized a 6-person format prior to 1980 although they weren't necessarily in a championship game. In 1984 Brenda Rhodes scored a record 55 points while three players including the Connecticut Sun's Shekinna Stricklen scored 45 points in a state tournament game.

Williams averaged 39 points, 14.7 rebounds, 3 steals and 1.3 blocked shots in three games in the 4A state tournament. Her final season averages were 26.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.4 blocked shots. She also had 105 offensive rebounds and 83 3-pointers in 36 games as a senior as she shot 56 percent from the field, 42 percent from 3-point range and 70 percent from the foul line.

According to the online record book posted on the site, she joins Lakyn Garrison as the only Arkansas girls players during the 5 on 5 era to score more than 3,000 points. Unofficially, I have her finishing with 3,421 points and her 965 points scored as a senior would be the second most in Arkansas 5 on 5 history. Other unofficial career numbers I have for her are 1,244 rebounds, 285 assists and 295 steals. She had 46 games with at least 30 points including nine with 40 or more including the final two of her brilliant high school career.

Next up for Williams will be the McDonald's All-American Game in Atlanta on March 28 and Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn on April 8.

Monday, March 05, 2018

UConn rolls into AAC final in record fashion

There were plenty of mixed emotions for Geno Auriemma during tonight's American Athletic Conference semifinal win.

Auriemma was happy to see his team up its intensity and play at a higher level now that March Madness has arrived. However, seeing Jamelle Elliott struggling to get her team to make a shot was tough to handle.

There are few people in the world who Auriemma likes and admires more than Elliott, a starter on his first national championship team and a successful assistant coach with the Huskies before taking the job at Cincinnati.

It took 14 minutes of game action for the Bearcats to end their shooting drought. It started late in the first quarter, then Cincinnati failed to score in the second quarter before Shanice Johnson hit a 3-pointer with 8:37 left to play in the third quarter to end the 38-0 run.

"It is not easy, you are playing a team like ours and we are playing well, we have done that to really good teams for long stretches," Auriemma said. "Jamelle has a good team, no disrespect to Jose (Fernandez) but they could have had co-coach of the year and she deserved it. To take her team to where they were into the semifinals, when she took the job they were last in the league and I think she has done a phenomenal job there and I am sure they will be involved in postseason play."

A couple of statistical notes from the game, juniors Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier both registered their 100th assist of the season joining Gabby Williams and Crystal Dangerfield in the 100-assist club. Kia Nurse is 12 away from joining them.

The five points scored in the first half by Cincinnati ties the mark for the fewest points allowed by UConn in a first half (Fairleigh Dickinson had five points in a Nov. 25, 2011 game).

Speaking of milestones, UConn is now 100-0 in conference play since the formation of the American Athletic Conference becoming the third Division I women's team to win 100 straight conference games.

There's a chance Williams could play in Tuesday's AAC final against South Florida.

"If you asked her she wanted to play, she wanted to play today and if she played today she might not be able to play tomorrow," Auriemma said. "Tomorrow we will see at shootaround because after tomorrow we have 10 or 11 days off so tomorrow's circumstances are a little different than tonight's were. If she can't go tomorrow because she doesn't feel comfortable or Janelle (Francisco), our athletic trainer doesn't feel comfortable then she is not going to go..

"Probably because you've had injuries like Gabby has had in the past, you don't even want to acknowledge it and you don't want to be in the training room because you don't want anybody telling you that you can't play. It is a fine line and it has been bothering her and she has managed it great. yesterday was a little tweak, it didn't make it worse, it just made it sore."