BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Napheesa Collier had her best smile working as a freshman at Jefferson City High when she had a picture taken with Maya Moore, who also spent time growing up in Missouri's capital city.
When the UConn women's basketball team's sophomore forward learned Friday that coach Geno Auriemma compared her consistency to that of Moore, the Huskies' only four-time All-American and three-time Wade Trophy winner, Collier's best smile got even better.
"Pheesa's the same every day," Auriemma said. "So what you're seeing in every game is what she does every day in practice. Nothing ever changes. She's a lot like Maya Moore in that respect. From the day Maya Moore walked into practice until the day she graduated, she was the same every day. There were no bad days. There were no bad attitude days. There were no bad effort days. I mean, there are a lot of bad defensive days Napheesa has, don't get me wrong. She's still a work in progress in that area.
"But I'll tell you what. If I could only take one player in America on the offensive end out of any other player that's playing college basketball today and you'd say, 'Check every box, what can't she do?' I would take Pheesa over anybody. And she does it every game."
Top-seeded UConn looks to advance to its 12th consecutive NCAA Elite Eight Saturday when it takes on No. 4 UCLA in a Bridgeport Regional semifinal game at sold-out Webster Bank Arena.
"It makes me feel good to know that Coach has that confidence in me," Collier said. "I worked hard this year to be more consistent, so I'm glad he feels that confidence in me, because I feel that in my teammates."
Collier was named the American Athletic Conference Co-Player of the Year alongside teammate Katie Lou Samuelson earlier this month. The St. Peters, Missouri, native ranks in the league's top 10 in scoring (second at 20.2), rebounding (fourth at 8.9), blocked shots (first at 2.0), steals (10th at 1.8), field-goal percentage (first at 69.3), and free-throw percentage (sixth at 83.6).
She had her career high of 39 points in a win over South Florida at the Sun Dome in Tampa on Feb. 27. She has reached 20 points in 18 games and has recorded 14 double-doubles. Only once -- in Game 3 at LSU on Nov. 20 when she fouled down -- did she not score in double figures.
"What Pheesa does is so effortless for her that a lot of people don't realize how hard it really is," UConn forward Gabby Williams said. "Once you look at the numbers you wonder, 'How is that kid doing this every single night?' And she does it against any kind of team, any kind of defense. It's a consistency that only great players have. Good players do it once in awhile. She does it every single night. That's why she's a Player of the Year candidate."
Collier is one of four finalists for the Wade Trophy and for the Naismith Trophy, and is on the final 10-player ballot for the Wooden Award, all accolades that honor the nation's Player of the Year,
It wasn't enough to get her the AAC's Most Improved Player award, but her jump from freshman year when she averaged 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds has been remarkable.
"It's kind of weird especially looking at where I was last year," Collier said. "I'm just really honored to be in this position to even be a finalist. It feels pretty good. I'm just kind of happy to be here. The awards are really cool and stuff, but in the end it doesn't really matter. What matters is the team.
"I didn't come into the season thinking my one goal was to be a national Player of the Year or an award winner. I came in thinking I need to be more consistent, and I need to help my team more than I did last year. I was thinking about getting better for the team and for our games more than individual awards. I knew I didn't play to my full potential last year. I'm glad that I've kind of showed more of what I can do."
Collier set a tone for herself in the Nov. 14 opener against Florida State as she had 28 points, eight rebounds, and four blocked shots -- including a stuff of the Seminoles' Shakayla Thomas with 0:08 left to preserve a one-point lead. The 76-74 victory preserved UConn's winning streak, which is at a NCAA record 109 heading into today.
Only five times on the season, twice in the last 23 games, has she shot under 50.0 percent from the floor in a single game. The last time it happened on Feb. 11 when she was 4-for-11 against SMU, she was coming off a three-game stretch that saw her hit 32-of-37 attempts. With the Huskies struggling at Tulane on Feb. 18, Collier overcame foul trouble to finish with 26 points and 12 rebounds in a 63-60 victory.
She was named to the AAC all-tournament team after averaging 18.3 points on 72.4 percent shooting, 8.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocked shots in three wins.
"I think the consistency came from practicing and the fact I was really left no choice," Collier said. "To play well, you have to be consistent and you have to know what we're getting from all our teammates. I wanted to be that for my team. I wanted them to know that they could count on me because I can count on them. I was really left with no choice but to be more consistent.
"All of us for all our practices try to make it a game. It really is true that how you practice is how you play. If we're not practicing well, it usually carries over to our next game. So we try to get better and play as hard as can."
Collier's role model is UConn 2016 All-American forward Morgan Tuck.
"Morgan was definitely the most consistently stable person on our team," Collier said. "Coach still talks about her all the time and about how he loves Morgan and how she would come every day and give us the same things and never take a day off. Being like Morgan should be every player's goal. She was the best teammate that you could ever ask for."
UConn (34-0) is playing in NCAA regional games here for the third time in five seasons. The Huskies' only tournament loss in 12 games at Webster Bank Arena was to Duke in the 2006 regional final. UCLA (24-8) was here last year and lost to Texas in the Sweet 16. The Longhorns went on to lose to UConn two days later.
Earlier in her UCLA career, coach Cori Close traveled to Storrs to watch the Huskies practice. She's been impressed by the current group.
"I've watched a fair amount of film now, and it's just remarkable the efficiency and to have different players be involved in so many different plays," Close said. "There's some obviously great individual players. But that isn't what's impressed me the most. They use each other's strengths to make life easier for somebody else."
The Bruins will counter with an attack led by junior guard Jordin Canada, junior center Monique Billings, and sophomore forward Kennedy Burke. Senior guard Kari Korver is their No. 4 scorer and has taken 82.7 percent of her shots from 3-point land (210 of 254).
"They've got a kid who can really shoot it, another one is great with the ball, and another one just goes and gets every rebound and is athletic," Auriemma said. "The pieces of the puzzle all kind of fit for them and Cori does a really good job of giving them the kind of freedom that kids like that need to just play a little bit. The kids are kind of free to play and just be 'Cali,' just kind of do their thing."
The UConn-UCLA winner will face either third-seeded Maryland or No. 10 Oregon for a spot in the Final Four here Monday.