HARTFORD, Conn. -- The XL Center's sellout crowd was already in full throat Sunday as the University of Connecticut women's basketball team was in the midst of its biggest comeback in almost a decade.
Then the 15,564 fans found another level with 4:50 left when junior All-American Katie Lou Samuelson -- who had gone to the UConn locker room several minutes earlier to get her left ankle examined -- returned to the Huskies' bench. She sat down next to associate head coach Chris Dailey and hoped to convince head coach Geno Auriemma she was ready to be part of the rally.
"I thought I would be able to go back in, and I was pretty bummed that I didn't," Samuelson said. "But when your teammates are playing that great, I was happy to watch and support them the best I could. We showed we're going to have that heart and that fight no matter who is out there."
Without Samuelson and fellow All-American Gabby Williams (migraine), UConn used a closing 22-3 run to gain an 80-71 win over No. 3 Notre Dame in the annual Jimmy V Classic.
Samuelson returned to the starting lineup to a loud ovation in pregame introductions after missing the last four games with a left foot sprain and led the Huskies with 18 points. But with 9:24 left, Samuelson rolled her ankle on a baseline drive to the basket. She returned to the game but for only 1.2 seconds in the final minute as Auriemma put her in to make a possible inbounds pass or shoot free throws following a foul shot by Notre Dame's Arike Ogunbowale. But Ogunbowale missed and All-American Napheesa Collier brought down the rebound and got fouled.
"I was about to take the ball out better than I've ever had, but I didn't have to," Samuelson said with a smile.
Samuelson added five rebounds and two steals in her 28 minutes. If Auriemma was concerned about her being rusty after not seeing game action since Nov. 17, he tried to have her play it out early as she played the entire first quarter. After a 2:27 break, she came back in and played the remainder of the half.
She was most energetic in the third quarter as she tried to get something going for the Huskies on the defensive end by creating a steal and taking a charge on consecutive possessions.
"I wasn't happy in the first half because I felt like I played it safe and not like my normal self," Samuelson said. "The third quarter I tried to pick it up and felt better."
While Auriemma stood firm about not using Samuelson after she turned her ankle, he appreciated what she brought to the game and to her team on and off the court.
"She was pretty animated in the game and got knocked around quite a few times," Auriemma said. "She doesn't look like it, but Lou is a fighter. She is a tough kid, and right now it's really getting her angry that she can't play. It's starting to get to her a little bit. She's getting a little aggravated, because she wants to play so bad."
Samuelson was scheduled to get the ankle looked at again Monday. UConn was to have the day off with its next game Friday night at DePaul.
The Huntington Beach, California, native connected on two 3-pointers Sunday, her first right before the end of the first half that made her the 11th UConn player (and third Samuelson sister) with 200 career 3s.
Shortly after the game ended, middle sister Karlie Samuelson, now playing professionally in Italy, tweeted: "Nothing more I love to do than watch my sister play basketball. Such a fighter."
"Karlie watches every game and she'll go back and look at things and give me tips about what I can do better," Katie Lou said. "It's not scoring things I can do better, it's little things like about being a good teammate and impacting the game in different ways that don't show up in the stat sheet."
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis' UConn record of 398 may be tough to reach, but the family record is within reach as 2017 Stanford graduate Karlie leads with 249 treys, while oldest sister and 2015 Stanford graduate Bonnie Samuelson had 237.
"Hopefully I can do that," Samuelson said. "But the biggest thing so far this season is that I haven't been concerned with the 3-point shot. I think I've become a better player because of it. If I get the opportunity, I would love to do that."
UConn, which trailed by 12 in the second quarter and by 11 in the fourth quarter, had its biggest second-half comeback win since coming from 17 down with 15 minutes left to defeat host DePaul on March 1, 2008, and its biggest overall comeback since rallying from a 14-point deficit to beat Rutgers in the NCAA tournament Greensboro (North Carolina) Regional final in 2008.
Williams was just 1-for-7 for two points in 17 first-half minutes. While she had five rebounds and five assists, the senior forward was struggling, and Auriemma kept her on the bench the final 20 minutes.
"The Gabby thing has been kind of off and on, and it's something she's trying to deal with," Auriemma said. "Some of the migraine issues she has had and what causes them, where they come from and how to deal with them, we're really struggling with that right now. It affects the way she plays.
"She said, 'I could give it a go.' But the look on her face said no. So I made an executive decision."
Williams was coming off a strong showing in her homecoming game against Nevada in Reno. The Sparks, Nevada, native had 18 points, six rebounds, four assists and five steals in 34 minutes of an 88-57 win.
Into the record books
In her first two seasons at UConn, Kia Nurse shot 38.8 percent from 3-point land. As a junior she led the American Athletic Conference with a 46.2 percent mark.
When she made her first shot from behind the arc midway through the first quarter Sunday, she reserved a spot in the Huskies' record book to herself. The make broke a tie with Samuelson (2017) and Caroline Doty (2008) with 11 consecutive conversions. She would add No. 12 before finally missing with 1:45 left in the third quarter.
"It's something I'm proud to have, though I really didn't know about it before today," Nurse said. "When you have the ability to go somewhere where they want to help you get better at something you're generally not that good at when you got here … I feel fortunate that the coaches take time out of their days to watch film and help me and help me fix my shot to make it what it is now."
The NCAA record for consecutive made 3-pointers is 14 shared by Deana Lansing of Portland (1996), Lauren Howell of Mount St. Mary's (2008) and Kelsey Jacobson of Florida Gulf Coast (2012).
Nurse's final 3 ignited the Huskies' decisive fourth-quarter run. She also added a strong drive plus a layup following an offensive rebound.
The Hamilton, Ontario, native is shooting an AAC-leading 60.6 percent from 3 and is second in the league in overall field-goal percentage at 59.4.
Old and new
Among the former UConn players spotted in the sellout crowd were the program's first All-American, Kerry Bascom, as well as Kris Lamb, Kelly Schumacher, Ashley Battle and Kelly Faris.
But more important to the Huskies were three high school stars sitting in the front row: 2017 United States U-16 teammates junior forward Aliyah Boston (Worcester Academy), sophomore point guard Paige Bueckers and freshman wing Azzi Fudd. For the Minnesota native Bueckers and Virginia native Fudd, it was their second unofficial visit to UConn in a month. All three have scholarship offers from UConn.
UConn remained the unanimous No. 1 team in the Associated Press poll released Monday. Notre Dame stayed at No. 3 behind Texas. ... Auriemma recorded win No. 998 Sunday. Notre Dame's Muffet McGraw, who was hired in South Bend two years after Auriemma got the UConn job, coached her 1,000th game with the Irish. ... The Huskies will make the trip to South Bend next season, with the contest expected to be part of a two-game journey that will include Collier's homecoming game at Saint Louis University. ... The Huskies own an 8-2 record in the Jimmy V Classic after playing in the event for the seventh straight season.
Collier on whether the loss to Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament last March was a learning experience that helped the Huskies Sunday: "I don't think about that game anymore."