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Viewpoint Steady Collier a calming force for Huskies

February 12, 2019

HARTFORD — Her efficiency in the midst of chaos is amazing. There are moments in women’s college basketball with balls caroming off rims and bodies caroming off each other when the game can make little sense.

And then there is Napheesa.

Napheesa Collier’s game always makes sense.

She calms seas. She stills the blustery wind. She isn’t the biggest talker in the world and maybe that’s fitting, because nobody can quiet the loud, ugly turns of game like Collier.

Inside the lane? She has a nose for the basket as if she owns some giant GPS magnet. She banks shots, plays angles like she is Isosceles in Nikes.

The No. 4 Huskies did what they always do against No. 11 South Carolina on Monday night in the XL Center. They won. They won 97-79 because of a devastating third quarter where they outscored the Gamecocks, 29-12. They won because freshman Christyn Williams played one of her best games since that Big Wow at Notre Dame. They won because Katie Lou Samuelson heated up for 29 points.

But, mostly, the won because of Collier and the sort of ultra-efficient stat line that makes you wonder if she even has a pulse.

“No, I don’t think she does,” coach Geno Auriemma said.

Collier’s stat line screamed efficiency: 15-for-23, 16 rebounds, six assists, zero turnovers. Her 31 points were a season high. Her 16 rebounds were one shy of the career high she grabbed at Oklahoma in December.

She does this without needless on-court flair and without any off-court drama. She is more calculating than an actuary. We can’t say this for absolute fact, but chances are good she can stop earthquakes or at least social media drama.

“She has the perfect temperament for a great player,” Auriemma said. “She’s never in a hurry. No one gets her out of her rhythm, out of her tempo. She’s going to shoot the ball when she’s ready to shoot it. Nobody is going to make her shoot a shot she doesn’t want to shoot. That’s unique. She’ll give you three fakes in the lane until you finally go for one and she gets the shot she wants.”

At this point, Auriemma was warming up for some superlatives. It’s clear. She isn’t Diana Taurasi. She isn’t Breanna Stewart. She isn’t Maya Moore. And without transcendent games in the losses at Baylor and Louisville, it’s tough to come out and say she’s college player of the year. But she’s in the top handful for sure.

“Every coach talks about their players, as if they are the best players ever,” Auriemma said. “I don’t usually get caught up in that stuff. But there can’t be anywhere a player that’s playing better or does more for their team than Napheesa Collier. I don’t see that that’s possible. Granted, I haven’t seen every game, every week, in every conference. There’s something about her that’s rare. You just don’t see it.”

Dawn Staley has figured out how to win a national championship. She has not figured out how to beat UConn. South Carolina has played UConn when the Huskies were No. 1 in the nation. South Carolina has played UConn when the Gamecocks were No. 1 in the nation. Played the Huskies in Columbia, Storrs, Albany in the NCAA Tournament, and now Hartford.

Played UConn eight times and are 0-8. Hasn’t mattered when, where or who has been on the court. Breanna or A’ja Wilson. Staley also has coached Collier on national teams. She loves her game. Collier has loved playing for her.

“Napheesa is just relentless, relentless on both sides of the ball,” Staley said. “She always finds a way to the ball. She’s good around the rim. She’s savvy in that she can drive both ways, although she loves that left drive. She gets rebounds and put-backs. She never stops.”

South Carolina hit 10 of its first 11 shots. The Huskies changed defenses. They played zone. Junked it up, to use Staley’s term. They kept trying stuff until it worked. At halftime, Collier said, it was emphasized to force the Gamecocks to the middle and bring them to the help and make it more congested. They blew open a 44-43 halftime lead in the third quarter.

“I said before the season, we can’t guard anybody,” Auriemma said. “Against really good teams, we have to make a lot of shots, otherwise we’re going to lose. Plain and simple.”

The Huskies didn’t make those shots in losses at Baylor and at Louisville. They made them Monday night. Auriemma says he doesn’t worry about his starting five physically. He worries about them mentally. Yes, he is disappointed he hasn’t found a way to incorporate more minutes from the bench, but that’s life in the 2018-2019 season.

Auriemma said for a time Williams as a freshmen thought about playing instead of playing, didn’t trust her instincts. From the start, Collier trusted hers. Find the angle to the basket. Find the most efficient shot. Quietly, she has expanded her game. Look at the last four outings. She has 17 assists and one turnover. And on a night like this she hit mid-range shots that aren’t always easy to make.

“I was worried going in the season whether Pheesa could play that high-post spot that Gabby Williams and Stef Dolson played,” Auriemma said. “I’ll tell you what. She has gotten better and better and better at it. Because of Pheesa and Megan Walker we’ve become a better passing team.”

Look, if anybody thinks the Huskies are going to become a great lock-down defensive team, it’s not happening.

If anybody thinks Auriemma is suddenly going to start going 8-9 deep, forget about it. He laughs, says his starting five players are smart. As long as they play hard, they’ve figured out they aren’t going to get benched.

After the losses to Baylor and Louisville it was important that the Huskies come out of this night feeling good about themselves. They do. If the season ended today, the NCAA said Monday night the Huskies would be a No. 2 seed in Albany behind Mississippi State. You know what? That’s fine. There’s nothing to get all worked up about. That’s nothing to let the old blood pressure would go through the roof.

“This felt really good, especially since this is our last really big game of our regular season,” Collier said. “Seeing how we learned from our two losses.”

Yes, the seas calm when Collier opens her mouth.

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123

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