Napheesa Collier is experiencing the life of a returning All-American. Her phenomenal sophomore season a year ago put a target on the back of the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's forward.
The Huskies' opponents are going harder at her than ever before. But her rivals' efforts pale compared to how hard Collier is on herself.
"I know the work that I put into this and I know that my shots are eventually going to start falling," Collier said. "I try to keep pushing and working through this slump."
Slump? About 98 or 99 percent of the country would love to be slumping so much.
Collier was everyone's All-American before a record crowd at the Sun Dome in Tampa Saturday night. She had a season high 25 points, 11 rebounds, four assists to no turnovers, and four blocked shots in 28 superb minutes as No. 1 UConn smashed South Florida 100-49 in American Athletic Conference action.
She'll go for her second straight double-double Tuesday night when the Huskies host Central Florida at Gampel Pavilion (SNY, 7 p.m.).
Collier made her first five shots Saturday night, then hit the rim on a 3-pointer while trying to beat the first-quarter buzzer. She missed a left-handed layup to start the second quarter and didn't finish a drive to the basket and committed a foul two minutes later. She then made her last seven attempts. At the end, 12-for-15 shooting wasn't good enough for her.
"I want to be the best I can be and when I miss a shot I know I should make it's frustrating," Collier said.
"I don't think I've played that great. One of the things I wanted to get better at was defense and I'm not at the level I want to be. And my shots aren't falling like I want."
Let's look at the numbers.
Collier is averaging 15.8 points, 8.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.9 blocked shots, all numbers that rank in the top 10 in the AAC. She is also 13th in assists (3.2) and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.6). She has been in double figures scoring in every game since the opener and Saturday night raised her field-goal percentage to 54.9.
"Yeah, but I shot almost 70 percent last year," Collier said.
"I don't know, but maybe I spoiled myself because I want to get back up there."
Through 13 games last year, her field-goal percentage and scoring were higher (64.4/19.2) were better. All her other numbers are equal or better this year.
Does her frustration show?
"She's so hard to read. Pheesa is the same whether she's getting 30 points or getting three," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "It's difficult to gauge where she is. But I just go by, 'What kind of shots is she getting? How are they coming?' She has about the same number of shots after 13 games that she had a year ago, but they just don't seem like she's in a rhythm, in a flow, as the game goes on."
Collier was so good as a sophomore when she was a consensus first-team All-American, that if Washington's Kelsey Plum had not had the sensational senior season she put together, the St. Charles, Missouri, resident might have brought home a national Player of the Year award or two.
But while Collier seems to see the glass half empty, her teammates see it as full.
"There's frustration when you're not making shots that you know you can make," UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson said. "Last year we just got so accustomed to having Pheesa go 9-for-10, 10-for-11, making almost every shot every single night.
"But even when she's missing a couple, she still impacts every single game no matter what and she's going to have performances like this over and over."
UConn (13-0 overall, 3-0 AAC) took care of its biggest AAC rival with ease Saturday night and can start to put distance between itself and the rest of the conference in the league standings this week. The Huskies, who are in a three-way tie for the conference lead with UCF and surprising Houston, host the Knights Tuesday night and visit the Cougars this Saturday.
UCF (11-5, 3-0) pulled away late to defeat Wichita State 59-53 in Orlando Saturday and win its first three AAC games for the first time. Senior guard Aliyah Gregory was an all-AAC first-team selection in the preseason and is the Knights' top scorer alongside senior guard Zakiya Saunders. Forward Masseny Kaba was named the AAC Freshman of the Week Monday.
It will be the first time UCF has played at Gampel Pavilion. It will be the first time the Huskies have played on campus since Nov. 17.
"It's been since Cal, and I don't have a good memory of that one," said Samuelson, who suffered a left foot sprain that night that sidelined her for four games.
The Huskies flew home from Tampa Saturday night. They'll be back on the road Friday for a Texas two-step: at Houston Saturday followed by a trip to Austin to face the Longhorns Monday.
UConn pushed its winning streak in true road games to a NCAA record 43 Saturday. It has won 70 in a row -- the third-longest streak in NCAA history -- at home and that will be on the line Tuesday night.
"Leadership and maturity come in a lot of different ways," Auriemma said. "We talked a lot, and you can tell a lot about a team by the way they handle road trips. We've been on a long road trip and we've been on the road a lot since November. I think we're on the road 19 out of 31 days in January so it's not ideal. If you're not mature about it you let it affect you. Our seniors did a great job this trip especially of setting the kind of tone we need to have set. Everybody else followed suit. I hope we can get that from them every game."
And get what they got from Collier as well.
"One of the great things about this team is that no one is worried about their own stats," Collier said. "Everyone is happy when someone else does well.
"This year has been harder, but hopefully my shots start falling soon."
The Huskies hope she's on target again.
UConn was the unanimous pick as the nation's No. 1 team for the 10th consecutive week as the Huskies received all 32 first-place votes in the Associated Press poll released Monday.
Notre Dame remained second while Louisville, Mississippi State, and Baylor each moved one up one spot to round out the top five. Notre Dame visits Louisville Thursdaynight.
Rutgers (16-2) entered the poll for the first time this season at No. 21. The Scarlet Knights, who were 6-24 a year ago, have won 11 in a row and have a top 10 RPI and strength of schedule. It is their best start since they were 17-2 in 2008, a year that concluded with a loss to UConn in the NCAA Elite Eight in Greensboro, North Carolina. They are also 4-0 in the Big Ten.
Green Bay returned to the top 25 at No. 25. Villanova and Stanford dropped out. USF was the only other AAC team to receive votes.
SALE OF THE CENTURY
What kind of night was it for USF Saturday? UConn's Molly Bent had missed her only 3-point shot of the season coming into the game. But the reserve sophomore guard nailed a trey with 2:21 left. Then on the Huskies' final possession and the shot clock almost out, she hit a second 3 with 8.2 seconds to go to get UConn into triple figures for the fourth time this season.
The situation was similar to one UConn was in at Purdue exactly a decade earlier. On Jan. 6, 2008, the Huskies had 97 points with the clock running out when Tahirah Williams made the only 3-point shot of her career to finish a 100-50 victory. The Boilermakers fans at Mackey Arena booed. The difference in Saturday night's situation, though, was Bent needed to shoot to avoid a shot-clock violation while the shot clock was off at Purdue.
"It's a delicate situation," Auriemma said. "At one point CD (associate head coach Chris Dailey) actually said what we always say, 'Let's work on our offense, we're up a bunch, but let's not embarrass anyone, obviously.' Some of those kids just got in the game. What are you going to tell them? Don't play? Don't shoot? Don't make any basketball plays? But the guys that came off the bench played pretty well and that's the second game in a row we've gotten good minutes from them."
After losing three times to UConn by an average of 49.7 points a season ago, USF figured its luck against the Huskies had to improve. It didn't. The Bulls lost by 51 and are now 0-24 in the all-time series.
"I went in afterwards and said, 'We're not 51 points better,' " Auriemma said. "We make them do things that they're not used to doing. We're probably the only team they play that forces them into situations that they're not comfortable in. We've done a good job against them the last couple of years. They have so much stuff they do and that European style of play is not easy to play against, it's kind of tricky. You have to be solid and on your toes. They shot the ball lousy, too. It's not like they didn't get any shots. They got a bunch of good shots but just didn't make them."
USF's top three scorers -- Kitija Laksa, Maria Jespersen, and Laura Ferreira -- combined to shoot 4-for-40 from the floor and the team finished at 27.8 percent. The teams have a rematch at Gampel Pavilion on Feb. 26, which will be Senior Night for UConn's Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams and include Williams' induction into the Huskies of Honor program as a WBCA All-American.
"They are the No. 1 team in the country," USF point guard Laia Flores said. "It's good for us to have them in our conference so we have the opportunity to play them twice, hopefully three times, so we can learn from the best."