Houston at No. 2 UConn, Saturday, 1 p.m. (SNY, ESPN3) Huskies to have send-off for Collier, Katie Lou
STORRS — Napheesa Collier insists she’s not going to cry before her last regular-season game at Gampel Pavilion. Of course, that won’t surprise those who know the stoic, soft-spoken senior best.
“She’s probably not going to show a lot of emotion in public,” her mother, Sarah, said by phone. “She just doesn’t. With us, of course she (does).”
Saturday’s contest against Houston will be a celebration, not just for Collier or Rebecca Lobo — the Hall of Famer is having her number retired at halftime — but also for Katie Lou Samuelson. Two of the most accomplished seniors in UConn history will receive an appropriate send-off from an expected sellout crowd.
“I’m excited,” Napheesa explained. “I don’t see it as sad. Of course, I’m going to miss my teammates, but I’m proud of us for being here and I’m excited for the future.”
Collier and Samuelson — one a double-double machine and the other a lights-out shooter — will go down as iconic Huskies. They’ve won 136 games and lost only four, climbing up the school’s record books in the process. They’ve combined to score 4,418 points, more than any other pair of classmates in the fabled history of UConn’s program, and will be inducted into the Huskies of Honor.
“You couldn’t ask for two more coachable players — just a joy to have,” associate head coach Chris Dailey said. “Neither one has missed practice much. Phee has never missed, and Lou has missed when she’s had a major injury. But they’re always involved. Even when they’re on the sidelines at practice, they’re involved, they’re committed to our program. They’re great ambassadors for what Connecticut basketball is.”
Since the moment they arrived on campus as heralded recruits from different parts of the country — Samuelson was ranked No. 1 by ESPN in 2015, while Collier was ranked No. 6 — they’ve been close to inseparable, bonded by the pursuit of championships.
“They’re best friends,” junior guard Crystal Dangerfield said. “As long as I’ve known them, they’ve been attached at the hip.”
Added Dailey: “They both are fun-loving. They like to joke around a lot, and they’ve been through the wars together. They depend on each other.”
Collier, a 6-foot-1 forward who grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, calls her relationship with the Southern California-born Samuelson unique. They met for one of the first times on a recruiting trip to UConn in April 2014 — joining fellow top-100 recruits De’Janae Boykin and Haley Gorecki — and played later that year on the same 3-on-3 team during a tournament in China.
Yet, it wasn’t until freshman year at UConn when their friendship really blossomed.
“When you first meet someone,” Samuelson said, “you don’t let your extreme weirdness come out. But, once you spend a whole year together stuck in the dorms and snowed in, and you have hours on hours on end with someone, you start to see who they are.
“We’ve been through our ups and downs. We’ve been through a lot. That was kind of when we realized that we’re both super goofy and we kind of got along really well.”
Added Dangerfield: “Phee’s jokes are pretty funny. I think they feed off each other. If one gets going, they keep it going.”
They’re also fiercely competitive, which, judging by the eye-popping numbers they’ve posted, is no secret. Samuelson ranks fourth in program history in scoring (2,248) and has made more 3-pointers than all but one Husky — Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Collier, meanwhile, is one of only five players in program history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
“They have a lot of similarities,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Maybe that’s why they’re so comfortable. They both have a low-key approach to everything. They both kind of are subdued kind of people. There’s nothing dramatic about them, there’s no over-the-top theatrics about them. They just come in, they do their thing.
“You can sit down and talk to them. … Everybody that they meet falls in love with them because of the way they are with them. They’re the kind of kids you want to bring home with you.”
During his 34-year career in Storrs, one marked by 1,053 wins, 11 national championships and 19 trips to the Final Four (11 consecutive), Auriemma has coached his share of stars with large egos. Collier and Samuelson have proven to be the exception.
“I trust them to be great teammates, I trust them to be great leaders,” Auriemma said. “I trust that they’re going to help (everyone) get better. They’re just really good people, man. They’re really good individually and as a pair.”
Collier and Samuelson have had their share of disagreements along the way — albeit friendly in nature.
“Oh, we argue,” Samuelson said with a laugh.
Anything that stands out?
“Well, I like to make her mad,” she continued. “Phee’s very stubborn. She hates when people argue something that’s not correct. I’ll just purposely argue something with her that I know she won’t back down on just to piss her off.
“We’re both pretty stubborn. We’re both eventually like, ‘Fine, keep your side.’ But we’ll go back and forth at it.”
All jokes aside, Samuelson said her relationship with Collier translates onto the court. The duo has been instrumental in the second-ranked Huskies’ success this season: 26-2 record, including 14-0 in American Athletic Conference play.
Collier has thrust herself into the conversation for national player of the year, averaging 20.0 points and 10.5 rebounds. Samuelson, meanwhile, is averaging 19.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists.
“I don’t think we would necessarily be able to play the way we do with each other without building that friendship and that bond,” Samuelson said.