The UConn Huskies are perfect through their first 17 games of the season, but these next two weeks will be as important as any during the regular season for the top-ranked team in the nation.
The Huskies dominated American Conference-foe Central Florida Wednesday night, 106-51, in their first game without All-American forward Morgan Tuck. The team announced earlier in the week that Tuck would sit out, at least, the next two weeks to rest her sore right knee.
While playing without one of the best players on your team is never ideal, the two week break comes at a lull in the schedule, as it appears Tuck should be back on the court when UConn travels to South Carolina to take on the second-ranked and also undefeated Gamecocks.
With Tuck missing the games against the Knights, SMU, Tulsa, Memphis, Tulane and possibly Eastern Carolina, it leaves a hole in the front court for other players to step up and fill. Players like junior Saniya Chong, sophomore Gabby Williams and freshman Napheesa Collier, will get a chance at bigger minutes, and of course, it helps having the nation's best player in Breanna Stewart there to also pick up some of the slack.
Freshman Katie Lou Samuelson has also gotten the opportunity to contribute more, even before Tuck was sidelined. Through her first 17 collegiate games, Samuelson is averaging nine points, 2.7 assists and 3.2 rebounds in 20 minutes per game, while shooting 33 percent from the behind the arc. Early in the season, Samuelson said she was letting not making shots affect the rest of her game.
"It does get to me, because I know I can knock those down," Samuelson said after her team's win against Nebraska back in November. "I have an expectation from myself to hit shots because that's what I've done my whole life, but as a shooter, you just have to forget about it.
"Coach does do a really good job of letting me know when I'm just focusing on shooting, and they're not going in. He kind of just challenges me to do other things, which is really good for me because I don't want to limit myself to be just a three-point shooter."
Head Coach Geno Auriemma says every player reacts differently to being a freshman at UConn.
"There's a lot that goes into being pretty good when you're a freshman around here, and sometimes it happens quickly and sometimes it doesn't," Auriemma said. "(Katie) Lou was struggling a little bit. I think we're trying to take the ownness off of ‘I'm a shooter' or ‘I'm the next great shooting star at Connecticut.' There's just so much more than that, so I'm happy for her."
Fast forward nearly halfway through the season, it appears Samuelson is finding her groove being more than just a shooter at the perfect time for a team playing without Tuck. In her last six games, Samuelson is averaging 12.7 points, 4.5 assists and 4.2 rebounds in 24.5 minutes per game while shooting nearly 43 percent from the three-point line.
Samuelson really stepped up in the last two games, when Tuck was very limited. Against Temple, Tuck recorded six points and five rebounds in only 14 minutes, while Samuelson scored a career-high, 21 points and added six assists on 8-for-12 shooting from the floor, including five threes.
Against Central Florida, the first game the Huskies were completely without Tuck, Samuelson did not shoot the ball as well, going 3-for-11 from the field, but managed to record another career-high, this time with seven assists. Auriemma says the players personality has a lot to do with how quickly they can be molded into the UConn system.
"We've had kids come here that scored a lot of points in high school, and right off the bat they're attitude is ‘I'm going to score a lot of points.' We try to explain to them it's not about just scoring points. We explain to them the difference between shooting the ball well and playing well. Those are two separate things, and a lot of times they haven't had to deal with that at the high school level."
Samuelson's improved all-around play might remind UConn fans of a player that just left the team for the WNBA last season. Before leaving the Huskies, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis broke the Division I record for most made three-point attempts (398).
Mosqueda-Lewis was one of the team's best three-point shooters last season, and Samuelson is starting to fill the void from the behind the arc left by the senior.
While no one should expect the freshman to completely replicate what Mosqueda-Lewis was able to do in her final season at UConn, the effect on the court is already very similar: the opposing team has to respect both players' ability to shoot so much that they cannot double the Huskies post players on the block. This provides the necessary spacing on offense that any team strives for.
The comparisons do not end there. Surprisingly enough, both Mosqueda-Lewis and Samuelson are from California, and both attended the same high school. Samuelson's improving passing ability has been on display the last few games, and Auriemma says he is not surprised by it.
"(Samuelson) draws a lot of attention, so she has a lot of opportunities to pass the ball and she wants to pass the ball," Auriemma said. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis became a great passer. I think the more times you have to have the ball in your hands and the more times people are coming after you, the more opportunities you get to be a good passer."
The American Conference Freshman of the Week looks the part of the next great Husky sharp-shooter that does so much more than just shoot.