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women’s basketball Passing grade

February 16, 2019

STORRS — The strong-willed, sure-minded, quick-thinking point guard. The fearless, effervescent scorer. The bruising big who will stop at no costs to pull down a rebound.

They’ve all been staples of Geno Auriemma’s teams during UConn’s unmatched run of dominance.

And then there’s the versatile forward who can pass out of the post. Without any consternation, Napheesa Collier has gelled into that role this season.

“That’s been a big part of our offense for a long, long time,” Auriemma, deep into his 34th season, recalled Friday following practice at the Werth Center. “Pheesa’s an impossible matchup up there because you have to guard her because she can make that shot. And she’s going to be able to hit somebody for a layup. And then she’s going to go right by you.

“She’s kind of like the perfect player to have in that position, for sure.”

While numerous players have filled that role over the years, few managed to set themselves apart as pinpoint passers. Names like Stefanie Dolson, who averaged a career-high 3.4 assists on the 2013-14 team that went 40-0 and won the national title, and Gabby Williams, who topped 5.0 assists per game the last two years on Final Four squads.

“I was worried going into the season whether Pheesa would be able to play that high post spot that Gabby and Stefanie Dolson played,” Auriemma explained following Monday’s 97-79 victory over No. 11 South Carolina. “And I tell you what, she’s gotten better and better and better at it.

“I’ll tell you who else has become a really good passer, too, Megan Walker.”

Collier has been on a tear, scoring 20 points or more in eight straight games for the fourth-ranked Huskies (22-2, 10-0 AAC). Over that times, she’s also averaged 10.2 rebounds, putting herself squarely in the mix — right alongside Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu, Louisville’s Asia Durr, Mississippi State’s Teaira McCowan and Iowa’s Megan Gustafson — for national player of the year.

What hasn’t gone unnoticed about the 6-foot-1 Collier during that time is her evolution as a passer. Over the last four games, she’s dished out 23 assists compared to only three turnovers.

“She’s able to find people and hit people that you didn’t even think were open,” freshman forward Olivia Nelson-Ododa said. “She does that extremely well.”

Collier, who’s averaging a career-best 3.8 assists per game, seems to have embraced her role as UConn’s de-facto quarterback in the post.

“It actually is a really important spot because you’re in the middle of the court, so you can see things a little better and you have a better angle to pass,” the senior said. “Just trying to make sure I get the ball to my teammates … you kind of feel panicked at times because everyone closes in on you at the high post.”

Collier isn’t as flashy as the Huskies’ true quarterback, Crystal Dangerfield, who has seemingly mastered the art of the behind-the-back pass. Yet she’s proven to be just as effective.

“You have to really have a lot of trust in your teammates, especially on a back-door (pass),” Collier said. “You kind of have to throw it before they’re even there. Allowing myself to do that was kind of hard at first. Gabby, that was her specialty, throwing that back-door pass. Just putting a lot of faith in that, just really trusting your teammates.”

And Collier’s teammates trust her.

“I don’t ever worry about her going into a game what we’re going to get, what’s going to happen,” guard Katie Lou Samuelson said. “I think we all just consistently expect the stuff she does, which we take for granted sometimes.”

On the recruiting trail: Auriemma recently traveled to watch 6-4 Irving MacArthur (Texas) forward Hannah Gusters, the No. 7 ranked player in the Class of 2020 by ESPN. He also checked in on the No. 8 player in that year’s class, 6-6 forward Kamilla Cardoso out of Hamilton Heights Christian Academy (Tenn.).

dbonjour@ctpost.com; @DougBonjour