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Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier ready to write their own ending at UConn

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UConn's Samuelson wants to be ready for this season's big moments (0:29)

After experiencing heartbreaking losses in back-to-back Final Fours, UConn senior Katie Lou Samuelson isn't taking anything for granted this season. (0:29)

STORRS, Conn. -- There's a different kind of calculus to success at UConn. Freshmen will say they know this -- but they don't. Not really.

When Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier arrived at UConn in 2015, they were jumping on a speeding train headed for the program's 11th NCAA title behind a Breanna Stewart-led senior class that was so talented and so prepared, they knew the Huskies wouldn't lose.

The demand to catch up to that level of excellence is a season-long jolt to the system for UConn freshmen. It was no different for Samuelson and Collier, who would leave practice and not want to talk about it, because it was so stressful.

But, Samuelson said, with those seniors around, "As hard as freshman year was, it's still in a way the easiest. Because you don't have everything on you. You can hide some days."

Now three seasons and just two losses later -- both of them gut-wrenching defeats -- Samuelson and Collier are the seniors. They have seen how it's done. Still, coach Geno Auriemma took them aside not long ago for one of his trademark blunt evaluations.

He told them, "You haven't changed one bit since freshman year. You're exactly the same people. You might be able to do some things on the basketball court, but your personality hasn't changed one iota."

Re-telling the story, Auriemma grinned a little, letting you imagine their initial surprise.

"It was kind of a wake-up for them, like, 'I've got to change to fit the role that I'm in,'" Auriemma said. "I'm not afraid to have those discussions. Because, forget just our team's success, it's important for their growth to know that. You can't be the same when you're a senior as you were before. There have to be some changes: what your approach is, what you expect of your teammates and knowing that if you don't do it, it won't get done.

"Then they went out and had one of their best practices ever."

Auriemma knows that they were aware of all this before, but the reminder helped. And he might need to do it a few more times. Not because Samuelson and Collier don't get it, but because they do.

"When it comes down to it," Samuelson said, "we really have to do everything right in order to make it back to that same place."

Actually, they want to make it further. National semifinal losses in overtime are the only blemishes on their college careers. But here is where the calculus is so vexing: What would be epic success for so many programs is not enough at UConn. It seems unfair that Samuelson and Collier might feel those two losses burn brighter than their 110 victories.

But ultimately, it's why they came here. Samuelson, the California kid and youngest of three hoops-playing sisters, went her own way to the East Coast after her siblings played at Stanford. Collier, the Missouri kid, can be mistaken for lacking emotion on court, when in fact she's just an expert at concealing it.

"Her motor is relentless," Auriemma said of Collier, a 6-foot-1 forward. "She makes shots, she finishes. She's non-stop; she doesn't take plays off, ever."

Samuelson and Collier -- who, with junior point guard Crystal Dangerfield, provide guidance for younger players like sophomore Megan Walker and freshman Christyn Williams -- are good friends who sometimes can finish each other's sentences. They have the same major (human development and family studies). They love to read, and trade book recommendations -- to a point.

"We both like mysteries," said Samuelson, adding with a smile, "But Phee also likes love stories and that stuff, and I won't read any of those books."

They have been there for each other through the mostly good and sometimes painful times, emotionally and physically. To be at UConn is to accept the inevitable comparisons to all the standouts before you, but Samuelson and Collier aren't thinking about that. They aren't even thinking about the "right" ending they want, because that's not how it works. You get there step by step.

"Now, as the oldest ones, we know what we're doing," Collier said. "So we are definitely talking all the time and thinking of ways we can do better and hold each other accountable, and trying to make practices more fun for everybody."

Learning from rare losses

UConn lost 66-64 at the overtime buzzer in the national semifinals to Mississippi State in 2017. Then the Huskies fell again to a buzzer-beating shot in overtime last season in the semis, 91-89, this time to Notre Dame. Both defeats ended perfect seasons at 36-1.

Samuelson has never watched the Mississippi State loss, although the 6-3 wing has seen the ending -- Morgan William's shot over UConn's Gabby Williams -- a few times. But she has watched the Notre Dame loss so much -- even breaking it down with former NBA star Kobe Bryant this summer while home in California -- that she can almost narrate play-by-play all that happened leading up to Arike Ogunbowale's game-winning jump shot for the Irish.

It's the opposite for Collier: She has watched the Mississippi State game a few times, but can't bring herself to watch the Notre Dame loss.

"I know if I watch it, I'm going to learn something," Collier said. "But I just don't want to, because it's going to make me angry. That one just hurts, still, because it felt like it was right there in our grasp to win.

"And Arike made the shot against me, so just thinking about it ... it was the same thing that happened to Gabby the year before. We had said of the [Mississippi State loss] that we were going to use that to fuel ourselves. And then we lost again."

Still, Collier sensed more of that "vengeful" energy, in a good way, during summer workouts with the team this year. And her preparation for this season included competing with the best players in the world: the U.S. national team. Collier went to France with Team USA for exhibition games just prior to the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup, but then she was cut.

"I didn't really have any expectations of making the team; I just came in thinking I was going to work as hard as I could," Collier said. "But I made it to the last step, so it was a little disappointing because I was right there. Still, I felt honored that they kept me on that long, and I got to learn from these women. So it was like ... next time."

Samuelson spent this spring, summer and early fall recovering from surgery in April on her left foot. She had injured it against Cal last Nov. 17, and knew at season's end she had to have surgery. She was limited in practice last season, and gutted through the games, leading the Huskies at 17.4 PPG, which included shooting 47.5 percent (96 of 202) from 3-point range.

"For Lou, it's been a while since she's been 100 percent, and she's still not there yet," Auriemma said. "But there are days in practice where she looks better than she has ever looked in her career. We have to take measures to make sure we don't wear her out. We need to find ways to get her some breaks."

That's something none of the Huskies felt like they had two years ago, when Samuelson and Collier were sophomores. Stewart, Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson had graduated and gone to the WNBA, and Auriemma thought the Huskies would stumble somewhere with their difficult nonconference schedule and take some of the pressure off from trying to be perfect again.

But their winning streak became the longest ever, getting to 111 going into the national semifinal in Dallas. Along the way, they were part of an HBO special and answered nonstop questions about the streak.

"Looking back," Samuelson said, "that year felt like it just dragged on and on."

Then it ended abruptly. When Samuelson thinks back to the Mississippi State game, she recalls more than just William's shot and the shock of the loss. Her older sister, Karlie, had gotten injured while playing for Stanford in the first semifinal that night, against South Carolina. Karlie ultimately tried to limp her way through that game, but she was in obvious pain in the Cardinal's loss.

"I was upset emotionally and tried to act like it didn't matter. But clearly it did, because I felt horrible for her," Samuelson said. "I was concerned. I don't think it affected me in our game, but I wish I would have mentally prepared more for our game and could have blocked it out. Of course, it's easy to say that, but to really do that?"

The year before, Katie Lou suffered an injury in the national semifinals, early in the Huskies' victory over Oregon State. She had been dealing with a stress fracture and hadn't realized it. She broke her left foot going to the basket at the start of the game, yet kept playing until halftime when she finally asked the team trainer to look at it.

That ended her freshman Final Four. Samuelson still was a part of the undefeated national championship team. But because of that injury and the two semifinal losses, she hasn't played in an NCAA final. An odd thing for a UConn senior star.

"I don't know what it's like to play in that game," Samuelson said. "Do I want to think about it? No, because why get myself worked up about that? We've always said, 'Don't think about the Final Four.' I'm done thinking about that. Right now, we have enough we need to worry about every day, different stuff than I've ever worried about."

The time is now

That's exactly the mentality Auriemma wants from Samuelson and Collier. He wants them to share in his worries, to feel empowered to say things to the younger players, to have that ownership.

"I think leaders come in all shapes and sizes, and everybody leads in a different way," Auriemma said. "And some don't want to lead, they just want to play. I've always thought of Lou and Pheesa as guys who just want to play."

That prompted the aforementioned challenge to them to prove they had developed a different mindset than the ones they brought to UConn. He knew they were ready for that challenge.

Samuelson has scored 1,712 points in her UConn career, while Collier has 1,609 points and 808 rebounds. Statistically, they are elite Huskies, which is a special class of players. And that will be true no matter if this season ends the way they want. They then will join the many UConn alums in the WNBA; Stewart was MVP and won the league title this year with two other former Huskies, Sue Bird and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. Collier, Samuelson or both likely also will be part of the national team at some point.

Two losses at the buzzer in overtime don't define Samuelson and Collier, and shouldn't.

"There's no doubting that the past seasons have still been good seasons; we've done amazing things as a team," Samuelson said. "It's hard to think about it all and be upset, but still be happy. So you go back and forth."

Yet it's something they can shed to a large degree depending on how this season ends. It's in their hands, which is what they've been getting ready for all along.