Can She Get UConn a Fifth Straight Championship?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is the star of the best team in the country.
By Max Holm
Katie Lou Samuelson was a freshman basketball player at the University of Connecticut entering the biggest game of her career — the Final Four. Less than a minute in, she scored inside to put the Huskies on the board. Then came a three-pointer later in the quarter. She was proving herself. Until, suddenly, her moment was gone before it had even started. A broken foot, and she was out for the rest of the game, sidelined for the national championship title that followed.
Samuelson, now 19, was a big get for the Huskies after being named national Player of the Year by Gatorade, McDonald’s and USA Today and winning the Naismith Trophy. Her list of accolades is as long as her shooting range. She led her Mater Dei High School in Orange County to three straight Trinity League championships. As a senior, she captured the 2015 state regional championship and won four gold medals in international play for the U.S. team. She’s likely to spend four full years at UConn.
When she arrived at UConn, Samuelson was a role player, a three-pointer star on a team with three All-Americans. But as UConn lost Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck to the 2016 WNBA draft last spring, Samuelson says she “knew I had to take over a different role.” After her foot healed, Samuelson went from specialist to star. “Last year all she had to do was float around and people would pay attention to Stewart and Tuck, so she’d get wide-open three-pointers,” says Jim Fuller, who has covered the Huskies for the New Haven Register since 1999. Now, she’s the Chosen One. Fuller says Samuelson has owned the new responsibility.
To go from role player to All-American is not something we see very often from a sophomore.
—ESPN’s Kara Lawson
The scoreboard agrees: Six-foot-three Samuelson is the Huskies’ leading scorer, averaging 21 points per game, placing her among the nation’s top 15 scorers. She’s also third in the country in three-pointers made. She gets into the lane more, hitting shots from midrange and drawing more fouls. Samuelson, according to Fuller, has become a matchup nightmare. Her height makes her “a tough person to guard,” he notes — she can either push past or shoot over her opponent’s head.
Samuelson and fellow sophomore Napheesa Collier have allowed the Huskies to overcome the loss of three incredible players to enter March Madness at 32–0 and the No. 1 seed as the team aims for its fifth straight national championship title. Both Samuelson and Collier have displayed the maturity and growth of much older players, says ESPN college basketball analyst Kara Lawson. “Most players get better, but to go from role player to All-American is not something we see very often from a sophomore.”
Raised in Huntington Beach, California, Samuelson was drawn to basketball because of her two older sisters, whom she idolized and mimicked as she watched from the sidelines. She rarely won. But now, she is poised to be the most successful collegiate athlete in the family. (Her sister is a senior at Stanford.) “The best thing they did for me was when we played together they never took it easy on me. They just wanted to beat me up,” says Samuelson. The hard love led to hard work. Soon she was good enough to play on her sister Karlie’s team, which was full of older girls.
Already ambitious, Samuelson dialed up the competitiveness when her club coach sat her down and said she had the potential to be better than both of her sisters. She did, indeed, outshine them by the time she entered high school. Today, though, Samuelson’s team sisters are a harder bunch to outrun. The domination UConn’s team has had over the past decade-plus has been astounding. They enter March Madness with a winning streak of 107 games and with 10 titles since 2000. Historically, UConn’s often been carried by underclasswomen. UConn legends like Stewart, Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore were all big-time scorers as sophomores. “Their coach says that he doesn’t care what year in school you are,” explains Fuller of UConn’s magic formula. His faith in players regardless of age coupled with his long tenure has established a consistent force in women’s hoops.
But UConn lacks veterans. With their two stars as sophomores and only one senior playing heavy minutes, the Huskies will be up against much more experienced teams without a senior on their team who’s seen it all. “Those three players they lost last year were the ones that talked, the ones in the huddle, the ones that brought the team together. They had so much credibility among their teammates,” says Lawson. While UConn has thrived thanks to scoring from underclasswomen, every title-winning team from UConn since 2003 has also had a strong scoring output from juniors and seniors. Samuelson and her teammates will have to carry a bigger burden.
In late December, UConn traveled south for a big test against Maryland. With the Terrapins ranked fourth in the country, the Huskies needed a big night from Samuelson. But she was under the weather and threw up in the first half. Things weren’t looking good. But then, Lawson recalls, Samuelson came back in the second half, scoring 17 points and keeping her team undefeated. It’s clear this strong team needs their toughest player: Though they made do without her last year, Lawson says there won’t be a title this year for UConn without Samuelson.
- Max Holm, OZY Author Contact Max Holm