Napheesa Collier entered her junior season with the University of Connecticut women's basketball team coming off one of the best sophomore years in Huskies' history that ended with her being a consensus first-team All-American and the American Athletic Conference's Co-Player of the Year.
But she was determined to be better and set a goal of expanding her game in the hopes of helping UConn regain the national championship. The top-ranked Huskies are off to a solid start as they prepare to host No. 3 Notre Dame in the Jimmy V Classic at the XL Center in Hartford Sunday at 4 p.m.
Collier, though, is not that happy with herself.
"I haven't been playing as well as I should be playing," Collier said on Friday after practice at the Werth Champions Center in Storrs. "I don't know what's wrong. I'm just not doing the things that I did last year. I need to get back in the groove.
"I'm trying to get in the gym more, get more comfortable, and hopefully my shots will start falling soon."
Through six games, Collier is averaging 14.0 points on 48.6 percent shooting from the floor, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocked shots and 3.0 steals. That's pretty good for 99 percent of the country.
But a year ago, the St. Charles, Missouri, resident led the AAC in scoring (20.4), field-goal percentage (67.8), and blocked shots (2.1) while also ranking third in rebounds. Her shooting percentage was third all-time at UConn and broke Tamika Williams' hold on the top four single-season spots.
"I'm still a good shooter," Collier said. "The teams we've been playing have been trapping the post more. We knew that they would so that's why it was important for me to expand my game. It's frustrating not making shots that I'm capable of making.
"But I need to do better all-around."
UConn coach Geno Auriemma agrees, but added that Collier is also a victim of her own success from a year ago.
"Pheesa's been up and down a lot," Auriemma said. "She had the kind of year last year where she came out of nowhere and got so much done starting with the very first game. She had so much confidence and just was unguardable, as unguardable as anyone in the country.
"She comes back this year and she's not an unknown. Everyone knows who Napheesa Collier is. Defenses are paying a little more attention to her. They're not letting her get to some of the spots she wants to get to. I don't know if she has the same level of confidence right now that she had last year at this time. But if you would ask most normal players, 'How are things going?' Pheesa's doing really, really well. But compared to last season, which was remarkable? For six games she's been good, not great, but good."
Collier's best game came Nov. 21 at UCLA when she had 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, and five steals in a 78-60 win at Pauley Pavilion.
In the Huskies' game at South Bend last year, she played just 29 minutes due to foul trouble but scored 20 points as UConn pulled away late for a 72-61 win, its sixth straight against the Irish.
Like UConn (6-0), Notre Dame (7-0) arrives in Hartford with four victories over ranked opponents. The Irish's best win came against reigning national champion South Carolina a week ago in the Gulf Coast Showcase final.
Notre Dame has kept rolling even though it is without All-American Brianna Turner. The senior forward is sitting out the season after surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee suffered during the NCAA tournament last March. The Irish took another hit Tuesday when they announced freshman forward Mikayla Vaughn would be lost for the year with a torn left ACL.
But junior guard Arike Ogunbowale and sophomore wing Jackie Young have raised their games and the addition of transfers Lili Thompson (Stanford) and Jessica Shepard (Nebraska) have filled some holes.
"We know what they're capable of doing," Auriemma said. "Offensively we know how good they are and certainly we know the players on their team and how good they are. Getting Jessica Shepard has added an awful lot to their team. That is the kind of player that kind of makes things happen for them, because she is a ballhandler at the high post and she is somebody that can do a lot. And Arike Ogunbowale is just impossible to defend one-on-one. She's just a really tough matchup up for everyone. She's stronger than every guard. She's quicker than every forward. And I think one of the sleepers on their team is Jackie Young, who is having a great season. She is so efficient that she doesn't need the ball a lot in her hands and still gets a lot done.
"It's one more game against a really good team, but I think that it's the best team we've played to this point. We've played some good teams, don't get me wrong, but this is the best team that we're getting ready to play. And it might not be the last time we play them."
UConn and Notre Dame played in the NCAA Final Four semifinals three straight years (2011-13) and followed that with back-to-back meetings in the national championship game (2014-15).
The Huskies lead the overall series 35-11 and Auriemma's teams are 122-43 against teams coached by fellow members of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw was inducted into the Springfield, Massachusetts, Hall in September. Auriemma is also going for win No. 998 of his career.
UConn is playing in the Jimmy V Classic for the seventh straight season and 10th time overall and owns a 7-2 record.
Senior guard Kia Nurse has made her last 10 shots from 3-point land to tie the school record shared by Katie Lou Samuelson (2017) and Caroline Doty (2008). As of Friday, 100 tickets remained.
"We're definitely excited," Samuelson said. "I know no matter who we put on the court, everyone is going to be ready to go. And whoever is going to step up, we're going to go to them. It's going to be a lot of fun."