STORRS, Conn. — Olivia Nelson-Ododa’s expression didn’t change, even though the questions had to sting following UConn’s 18-point loss to Oregon on Monday.
What do think about this being the worst defeat in Gampel Pavilion history? How do you react to being outscored 44-14 in the paint? Why did it look easy for Oregon? How good are you all at taking criticism?
Nelson-Ododa praised the Ducks but lamented allowing them to dominate the lane. As for that historic loss in the Huskies’ on-campus arena, “It’s devastating,” the sophomore post player said. “It’s an awful feeling.”
Yet this is what you sign up for at UConn, which has won 11 NCAA titles and is under much more of a microscope than most programs in women’s college basketball. The Huskies are 19-2, an impressive record for most teams. But this is UConn, which is seeking its 13th consecutive trip to the Final Four and is projected as a No. 2 NCAA tournament seed in Charlie Creme’s latest Bracketology. The last of the Huskies’ nonconference games comes Monday, when they travel to top-ranked South Carolina (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2/ESPN App). A victory keeps the Huskies’ chances alive for a No. 1 seed, but another double-digit loss could put UConn at risk of falling to a No. 3 — which, of course, will have a ripple effect through the rest of the top 16 seeds in the bracket.
And while Nelson-Ododa is still trying to find her footing at the elite level in college basketball, coach Geno Auriemma says the Huskies are a different team when she plays well.
“It’s obvious we need to get tougher; I need to get tougher, personally,” Nelson-Ododa said. “That’s all I can do, is just learn from this.”
Nelson-Ododa was rated as the No. 5 recruit in the Class of 2018 by espnW HoopGurlz. She had some time to grow into her game as a freshman, with seniors Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson as UConn’s leaders.
This season, it has been straight into the deep end of the pool. As a 6-foot-5 player on a team that lacks size overall, Nelson-Ododa is expected to carry a lot of weight — which she has done with varying degrees of success, averaging 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds.
“It’s something I continue to try to figure out day by day,” she said. “You can have the physical tools, but if you don’t have that confidence and belief you can do it, it’s not going to work.”
A 74-58 loss to No. 6 Baylor on Jan. 9 was particularly painful, as Nelson-Ododa was benched after being held scoreless on 0-for-8 shooting. Auriemma acknowledged that Nelson-Ododa was going against a senior standout post player in Lauren Cox. Still, he said, “This game right here? That’s where Liv is right now. Will that change? I think it will. The next time we play in this kind of game, she’ll play a lot better.”
Nelson-Ododa said watching that game film was “hard.”
“But I realized certain things I could have done better. Like finishing. And on defense, moving my feet better,” she said. “Against [Cox], using different types of moves. You don’t see players at that level all the time, but when we do, I need to know how to deal with it.”
After four American Athletic Conference victories in which she averaged 9.0 points, Nelson-Ododa had 10 points and seven rebounds in a 60-45 victory against No. 23 Tennessee, which has size across the board.
Auriemma credited Nelson-Ododa with responding positively when she taken out of that game, too.
“I think there was a huge challenge in front of her today,” he said. “If you’re gonna keep putting yourself on the bench in every big game, you can’t help us. If you are going to be out of the floor, you’ve got to match the intensity of the game.”
The fact that Nelson-Ododa did match it for an important stretch against Tennessee stood out to Auriemma.
“If you told me we’re going to get 30 minutes of that every night from now on from Liv, then we’re a completely different team,” he said. “So that was a great snippet of what I hope she can do going forward.
“But like anything else, she gets carried away and fires up a 3-pointer. I guess you can’t have everything.”
Like so many Huskies before her, Nelson-Ododa expects that even when she gets some praise, there likely will be a few barbs mixed in as well.
“If you can’t take that, you shouldn’t be here,” she said. “That’s the thing you just have to realize. I have to work on not personalizing things, and just accepting it because he wants me to get better.”
Auriemma has challenged even the most successful past Huskies. Diana Taurasi said she often dreaded practice her freshman year. Sue Bird recalled Auriemma telling her as a sophomore, “Whatever goes wrong this season, it’s your fault.” Breanna Stewart was benched in a loss to Baylor in February of her freshman season, playing just seven minutes and going scoreless.
There are dozens more stories like that; much of the time, they’ve ended with the players figuring it out and excelling. Auriemma once grumbled about Collier and Samuelson, too, for not being intense enough when they were sophomores thrust into big roles.
When talking about Nelson-Ododa’s development, Auriemma said she reminds him of Rebecca Lobo, who was the national player of the year in 1995, when UConn won its first NCAA title.
“In Rebecca’s first two years, I remember every day I would say to her, ‘How come we stink now that you’re here? We used to be really good,'” Auriemma said. “Rebecca wanted to play like a big guard. She wanted to set a screen, shoot a 3, make it down on defense, block a shot.”
Auriemma then forbid the 6-foot-4 Lobo to take 3-pointers in games or practice until she became more adept in the paint. “I said, ‘This is how we’re going to build your game: inside out, not outside in.'”
“So you get somebody like Liv who’s 6-5 and long, and you go, ‘Why do you not want to play inside?'” he added. “Other than the fact that it’s physical in there, and you’re going to get beat up. I don’t think you made one jump shot against Oklahoma, and you had 27 points. See how easy it is?’
“The default button now is, ‘Oh, just let them shoot 3s.’ I don’t think that helps Liv one iota in becoming a better basketball player.”
In an exhibition against Team USA, Nelson-Ododa had 10 points and six rebounds. Then against Oregon, she again faced one of the best senior posts in the country, Ruthy Hebard, along with junior Satou Sabally. The Ducks owned the lane, but Nelson-Ododa had 8 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.
Against the Gamecocks on Monday, she’ll go against another senior in the paint in Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, and also one of the top freshmen in the country, fellow 6-foot-5 player Aliyah Boston. Just as Oregon thought it had something to prove by beating UConn for the first time, South Carolina will be trying to do the same thing.
For Nelson-Ododa, it’s another challenge in a season that has already had plenty of those. When asked about her game, she tries to see it as Auriemma does.
“Overall, there is improvement, especially down low,” she said. “But I try not to think about what I’ve done well. I just want to keep focusing on what I need to get better at.
“Because that’s the biggest thing in this program: He’s not going to be satisfied until I’m able to accomplish what I want. And I’m not going to be satisfied, either.”