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With UConn Chasing History, Samuelson Ready To Make NCAA Tournament Debut By Rich Elliott

POSTED March 18, 2016
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By Rich Elliott

STORRS – The NCAA tournament has long been an event that UConn freshman Katie Lou Samuelson felt compelled to watch.

Samuelson tried to get a glimpse of former BYU star Jimmer Fredette whenever she could. Her sisters, Bonnie and Karlie, have been mainstays in the women’s tournament playing at Stanford, giving her a personal connection with the tournament.

However, the time has finally arrived for Samuelson. The watching is over. She will make her tournament debut Saturday when the top-ranked Huskies begin their pursuit of an NCAA record fourth straight national championship against 16th-seeded Robert Morris in the first round at Gampel Pavilion (11 a.m.; ESPN2).

``It was always one of my dreams to play in the NCAA tournament, especially since I had the opportunity to watch my sisters play in it,’’ Samuelson said. ``I was able to experience a Final Four they were in and was able to go (to Nashville in 2014). I wanted to be in that situation. I wanted to go to a place that would help me achieve it. It’s why I’m here at Connecticut. I’m just anxious to start.’’

With a win over the Colonials (20-12), UConn would meet either eighth-seeded Seton Hall (23-8) or ninth-seeded Duquesne (27-5) in the second round Monday.

The Huskies (32-0) have won 69 straight games overall, one shy of the second longest winning streak in Division I women’s basketball history. They won 70 straight from Nov. 9, 2001 through March 11, 2003.

UConn set the record by earning 90 straight wins from Nov. 16, 2008 through Dec. 30, 2010.

``I think that it’s just time to go,’’ Samuelson said. ``I think we’re all ready for this game tomorrow and just for (the tournament) to start. But we’re going to take it day by day every single game. So I think we’re all just really excited.’’

Samuelson, who has started 16 of the last 17 games (Senior Day vs. Tulane Feb. 27), enters the tournament cemented in what is arguably her best stretch of the season. She has averaged 15.8 points on 58.4 percent shooting from the field (51.9 3-pointers), 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 27.6 minutes over the last eight games.

And in her first taste of the postseason as a member of the Huskies, she was impressive in The American tournament. Samuelson earned a spot on the all-tournament team after averaging 15.3 points (17-for-28 FG; 9-for-15 3-pointers), 3.7 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 29.3 minutes in three games.

``She’s certainly playing better than at the beginning of the season, that’s for sure,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. ``She’s playing like I had hoped she would play at some point during the season. I don’t think she’s playing at the level that she’s capable of reaching. But maybe that’s expecting too much from a freshman, I don’t know.’’

Samuelson delivered 13 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals in a season-high 34 minutes in a 77-51 over then-No. 21 South Florida in the tournament final March 7.

``I think Lou’s definitely playing her best right now, just making an impact in all different aspects of the court,’’ UConn star Breanna Stewart said. ``Especially in the (AAC tournament) championship game, the fact that she had seven rebounds. She was scoring, but she was being active in others ways and that’s what we need.’’

Auriemma said Friday that sophomore guard Kia Nurse will be an X-factor for the Huskies in the NCAA tournament. There is little doubt, though, that Samuelson will also be looked at to make an impact.

Samuelson leads the Huskies with 68 made 3-pointers, including 27 in the last eight games.

``I think any time you have someone that can really shoot the ball the way Lou can automatically she becomes a factor,’’ Auriemma said. ``Shooters are a really high premium in the NCAA tournament. And the more of them you have the more problems that the other team is going to have in trying to defend. I remember back when Kelly Faris was a senior, for instance, and all the focus was on everybody but Kelly on the perimeter. And when she started knocking down 3s in the NCAA tournament it was all over.

``There’s only so many places on the floor that you can be effectively successful defensively. So if Lou’s got that going that’s a part of it. And during practice we’ve tried to experiment putting her in different spots on the floor to make her a little more versatile rather than just stand there and shoot. So we’re asking a lot of her even if she’s a freshman.’’

Samuelson has been getting more shots up in practice lately. She has also become a more cerebral player offensively, taking the time to first read the defense and then react.

This has allowed her to see open looks at the basket and to reach double figures in scoring in seven of the last eight games. Samuelson has led UConn in scoring in five of the last seven games.

``I’ve definitely been trying to move better and I think one main thing is I needed to wait longer before the screens come,’’ Samuelson said. ``So I think I’ve been trying to do that and so that I could really read the defense instead of just running right through a play. But I think I’m making different cuts rather than just running out and making curls and stuff. So I think that helps out the rest of the team too by doing that.’’

On the eve of her first NCAA tournament game, Samuelson admittedly was not battling nerves. She did say, though, that could change as tip-off against Robert Morris draws closer.

But the Huskies have had her back all season. That will not change now as Nurse is ready to help settle Samuelson down if the need arises as she looks to play an important role during a tournament march that could have a momentous finish.

`` I think Lou’s as ready as any freshman will ever be,’’ Nurse said. ``And I think, obviously, nerves are going to play a part. But I think I have a little experience to help her out with that now. Stewie helped me out with it last year just by hitting me and laughing at me before the game started and those kinds of things. But, obviously, it’s one of the most fun experiences of your life and to go through it for the first time is incredible. And I’m so excited for her to get to do it.’’

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