KATIE LOU SAMUELSON IS THE LATEST IN A LONG LINE OF HUSKIES STANDOUTS. WHAT WILL IT TAKE FOR THE SOPHOMORE WING TO CREATE A LEGACY ALL HER OWN?
That was the inevitable question after the final buzzer had sounded. And whether her team had won or lost, whether Katie Lou Samuelson had played well or poorly, the answer was almost always the same: She was breaking and entering.
"We broke ... well, I don't want to say broke into.... " says Samuelson, the 2015 national player of the year at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana, Calif. "We found a lot of gyms with open doors."
Law-abiding citizens might question her terminology; the Samuelson family is probably wanted by community center managers and church janitors throughout Southern California. Jon Samuelson ran his three daughters, Bonnie, Karlie and Katie Lou, through extra shooting drills nearly every day—mandating roughly 500 shots or, sometimes, 500 makes—even after games. If the court they'd just played on wasn't available, they might stop at five gyms before finding one that happened to be unlocked. They brought their own basketballs and improvised the rest. "Sometimes we couldn't figure out how to turn on the lights," recalls Karlie, "so we shot in the dark."
Katie Lou delighted in these extra sessions and prided herself on her work ethic. Then she got to Connecticut.
HOW DO you build a legacy at UConn in 2017? You can win the Naismith Award and the Wade Trophy and be named the AP player of the year, but Rebecca Lobo and Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore and Breanna Stewart have already done that. You can be a first-team All-America four straight times, but Moore and Stewart achieved that, too. You can win four national championships in four years, but the '16 senior class pulled that off. You can help your team go undefeated for a full season or set the NCAA record for unbeaten streaks, but Huskies squads have been there and done those as well.
For UConn players now, the only way to set themselves apart is to win every game of their careers. For Samuelson, so far, so good: The Huskies' winning streak sits at 107 heading into the NCAA tournament, where they're the prohibitive favorite. The sophomore class—including Samuelson, a 6'3" wing—has gone 69--0 since arriving in Storrs. That may sound like fun, and it is when you're winning by double digits, as the Huskies have 30 times this season. Except when the score is tied 27--27 with three minutes to go in the first half against No. 4--ranked Maryland—and you're vomiting.
"She was doing it the whole game," guards coach Shea Ralph, a member of UConn's 2000 NCAA title team, says of Samuelson. "During timeouts, everything. You could hear her throwing up while [coach Geno Auriemma] was talking!"
It wasn't nerves; Samuelson, a 20.6 points-per-game scorer and leading candidate for player of the year, is seldom anxious. This was her version of Michael Jordan's flu game—miserably sipping Gatorade at her locker with a towel around her neck 45 minutes before tip-off, puking into a bucket on the sideline and still scoring 17 of her 23 points in the second half.
Her coaches and teammates were in awe. People who had known her longer weren't even surprised. When Katie Lou was in middle school in Huntington, Calif., she'd hang around after her practice finished and wait for Bonnie and Karlie, who played for the Cal Swish A team. Sometimes pint-sized Katie Lou, tromping around in sneakers that looked way too big for her body, talked her way into drills with the big girls. Midway through one session of layups interspersed with full-court sprints, she broke for a side door, threw up into a trash can and quickly rejoined the line.
Eventually she made it onto that squad for good. She played on Karlie's teams with girls two years older, at first for logistical reasons—Jon and his wife, Karen, outnumbered, couldn't keep track of three separate sets of practices and games—and then because she quickly outpaced her peers. During one game, facing a box-and-one defense, she scored 42 points; the college recruiters in the stands laughed aloud and high-fived one another. Coaches and even opponents fawned over her basketball IQ and her dedication. Stanford seemed to have the inside track; 6'3" Bonnie was All-Pac-12 honorable mention twice before graduating in 2015, and Karlie, a 6-foot senior guard, averages 12.7 points for the No. 6 Cardinal. But Katie Lou chose UConn because it would be hard, and she was right.
"Five hundred shots a day ... what does that prove?" Auriemma asked her early in her freshman season. "It proves that you work really hard at the stuff you're really, really good at."
At Connecticut, Samuelson found herself missing open looks because she had grown used to shooting over triple teams. She was matching up in practice against women who would go 1-2-3 in the 2016 WNBA draft, and they were crushing her. A coaching staff reminded her daily of the distinction between shooting well and playing well; Samuelson spent most nights stewing over her mistakes—and feeling unfairly persecuted. (She is hardly alone in hearing Auriemma's critiques in her dreams: He didn't speak to Stewart for two days going into last year's NCAA tournament because he sensed she was coasting.)
"I don't know what you want from me, Coach!" Samuelson would say.
"Yes, you do," Auriemma would answer. "You just don't want to admit it because you don't know if you can do it."
"In the moment I was pissed off," Samuelson says. "I'm working hard, and they just don't see it! But once you get to that moment when you are working hard and you've shown you can push yourself, you kind of look back and you're like, Yeah, wow, I was lazy."
No one took issue with her shooting form; she would go on to make the second most three-pointers by a UConn freshman (78) even after starting the season 12 for 47. The problem was everything else. What was she doing when her jumpers didn't fall? Was she posting up, staying in her stance on defense, rebounding, creating opportunities for teammates, even just sprinting from drill to drill in practice?
"This happens to every player who comes here," says Ralph. "Most of them were the best player in their high school, maybe in the state, sometimes in the country. They don't know how to handle adversity."
And on a team that has more NCAA titles (three) than losses (one) since the start of the 2013--14 season, adversity often has to be concocted. This year Auriemma started on Samuelson before the season even began, benching her for the start of the team's second exhibition game. "Lou, you didn't even play in the championship game [because of a broken left foot], and we won by 30," Auriemma told her. "You had that luxury—if you got it, we go with [you]; if you don't, it's O.K. If you think you're gonna carry that same mind-set into this season, that's not gonna work."
JUST HOW much urgency can you instill in players when most of them have never lost a game in college? What they're doing on the court is clearly working; why do they have to change? ("They're true millennials," Auriemma says. "They'll work very, very hard for you. To a point.") So the UConn coaches alternate between approaches: Either do this because it will make you a better player, or do this because you owe it to the ones who came before you.
Both approaches work. Sometimes Samuelson is subjected to a task that is insurmountable by design, such as having to defend against eight male practice players with just three Huskies teammates. And sometimes the history of the program feels as heavy as her Human Development and Family Studies textbooks. "We're playing for everyone who came before us," she says. "They played as hard as they could every time, so we have to too."
This season, for the most part, Samuelson has lived up to that ideal. She knows that she cannot be the vocal leader this young team needs unless she models the effort level the coaches demand: "I worry about being that person who's like, Run harder! and everyone's like, What about you?"
Shooting is still Samuelson's strength—she scored 94 points over a three-game stretch in January, hit 41.5% of her threes and is threatening to break Stewart's sophomore scoring record (777 points). The practice players occasionally pause during scrimmages to marvel at her. Has she missed yet? And Samuelson still can't quite kick the habit of obsessing over an off day. The coaches try to get her to go easier on herself, reminding her that the very best players miss 50% of their shots. (Stewart, now starring for the Seattle Storm, is baffled by this idea. "If you're a competitive basketball player and you want to be the best you can be," she says slowly, as if explaining to a child, "I don't know if there is 'too hard on yourself.' ")
But now Samuelson also concentrates on the rest of her game. In practice, she insists that the team rerun drills until she executes the moves perfectly. She has led the team in a category other than scoring six times this year. Opposing coaches lament that a player who was once only a long-range threat has become more versatile. Says SMU's Travis Mays, one of the victims of Samuelson's three-game scoring explosion, "You can put it in bold: Go pro!"
When practice ends, she hoists 50 shots while her teammates take time to refine various other skills. As they start to trickle out for dinner, she summons a different male practice player every day for some spirited one-on-one.
Those sessions can run more than an hour. The practice players don't eat until the entire team is finished, so from time to time they'll encourage her to wrap it up. But they understand what they signed up for. So they stay into the night, sweating through their pinnies as Samuelson works on her post game or tries to stay in front of her man on defense. But she's not really vying with them, or even with Baylor or Notre Dame. Her true competition hangs above her: the banners commemorating the 18 first-team All-America selections, eight AP players of the year and nine Olympic gold medalists who have been where she is now.
She owes it to them.
"FIVE HUNDRED SHOTS A DAY ... WHAT DOES THAT PROVE?" AURIEMMA ASKED HER. "THAT YOU WORK HARD AT THE STUFF YOU'RE REALLY GOOD AT."
Women's ALL-AMERICA TEAM
G KELSEY PLUM, 5'8" senior, Washington
The game's all-time leading scorer, this James Harden of the women's game leads the nation, averaging 31.7 ppg.
G KELSEY MITCHELL, 5'9" junior, Ohio State
She's scored more than 20 ppg (23.0 in 2016–17) for the third straight season and has hit 107 threes, fifth in the nation.
G-F KATIE LOU SAMUELSON, 6'3" sophomore, UConn
The sharpshooter is averaging 20.6 ppg, and she makes 3.4 threes per game, which ranks fourth in the country.
F NAPHEESA COLLIER, 6'1" sophomore, UConn
She ranks second nationally in field goal percentage (68.9%) and contributes 20.5 points and 8.9 rebounds.
F A'JA WILSON, 6'5" junior, South Carolina
Nearly automatic in the post (she is shooting 58.7% from the field), Wilson is averaging 17.7 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.