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Mental Aspect Of The Game A Challenge For Samuelson

POSTED January 31, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – The gaudy statistics and extensive list of individual awards compiled by a player during their high school career carry little weight when they arrive at UConn. Playing for Coach Geno Auriemma at the top of women’s college basketball is more mental than it is physical.

Katie Lou Samuelson is the latest player honored as the national high school Player of the Year to join the Huskies. She had the luxury of watching her older sisters, Bonnie and Karlie, play at Stanford. Still, she has discovered that making an impact as a freshman at UConn is not something that comes without plenty of hard work.

Auriemma expects his players to play with a sense of urgency on every possession. He understands that this might be unrealistic, but it is something he feels can be accomplished. And this is the challenge confronting Samuelson.

``You definitely have to find your place and way as a freshman,’’ Samuelson said. ``I think for anyone it’s kind of difficult to go out there and just expect to do what you’ve done before. You just have to really feel it out. I had to challenge myself mentally more than I thought I would. Not so much physical, but just mentally pushing myself to go as hard as I can consistently and just doing what I need to do was probably the hardest part.’’

Saturday’s 83-40 victory over Memphis before a season-high 12,047 at the XL Center summed up Samuelson’s season to date. Auriemma called her out at halftime for her lack of effort in the first half. She then responded by delivering an inspired 10 minutes of play in the third quarter.

Overall, Samuelson finished with 13 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals in 27 minutes. She did not play in the fourth quarter.

``I’m definitely much stronger mentally,’’ Samuelson said. ``But at the beginning of this game my intensity wasn’t there. I started off slow and Coach wasn’t happy with that. So I’ve got to just be able to do that at all times. I still have a ways to go, and Coach is going to keep pushing me to do that. But I definitely feel more like I belong now than before.’’

The Huskies (20-0, 10-0 AAC) extended their winning streak to 57 games in reaching 20 wins for the 23rd straight season since an 18-11 finish in 1992-93. They have also opened 20-0 for the ninth time in the last 22 seasons, winning the national championship in six of the previous eight times they have done so.

Samuelson, who leads UConn with 36 made 3-pointers, finds herself gaining confidence with each passing day. And her progress has not been lost when it comes to her teammates.

``I think she’s responded in a great way,’’ UConn senior Breanna Stewart said. ``I think that looking from how she first started off she was a little slow in trying to figure out her place in things. And now she’s really asserting herself and just being more aggressive and playing … playing on the court offensively and defensively. And when she sees herself doing that it builds confidence. And it’s not just the game, she’s doing it in practice too.’’

Stewart led the Huskies Saturday with 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists and four steals. Moriah Jefferson added 11 points, seven assists and two steals, while Gabby Williams had 10 points, four rebounds and three assists.

Natalie Butler contributed 10 points and six rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench.

Samuelson has found consistency offensively over the past two weeks, reaching double figures in scoring in a season-high six straight games. She reached double figures six times in the first 14 games combined (7.9).

Samuelson is averaging 13.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 27.0 minutes over the last six games. Looking deeper into the numbers, she is averaging 14.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 25.8 minutes in the past five games in a starting role.

``I definitely think I’ve improved a lot since I first started,’’ Samuelson said. ``And I’m slowly starting to play more and more like I can and I think that I’ll just keep getting comfortable as we go on and do whatever I can to open up the lane and help out the older girls.’’

The Huskies have as many as 18 games remaining. At this juncture, Samuelson appears to be riding the proper trajectory that will help her to become a trusted member of the rotation during the postseason.

Stewart definitively believes that will be the case.

``Each game it seems like she’s getting more and more comfortable playing with us and she knows exactly what’s expected of her,’’ Stewart said. ``And when you have a player that’s realizing that I think that … You’re building a trust with your teammates. And her coming in here and showing that she’s willing to work and willing to get better that’s all you want from a freshman.’’

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