STORRS, Conn. -- Katie Lou Samuelson would always follow her older sisters, Bonnie and Karlie, to their youth basketball practices in Huntington Beach, California.
But even from her young age the baby of the family would follow her own path.
"I was the girlie one and it took me awhile to get into basketball," Samuelson said. "I was a cheerleader every year for Halloween. I wanted to be a cheerleader. Then I told my mom I wanted to be a gymnast. And she just went, 'No. No. I'm not even going to let you try.'
"I always played with my dolls and toys. I still always went to basketball practice but I would bring my dolls. I don't know when it became serious for me. But even if I didn't really want to do it, I did it."
She'd find her love of basketball in middle school that continues to this day. Her journey has taken her 3,000 miles from home and 3,000 miles from where her older sisters went to college. And at the University of Connecticut and with the Huskies she follows her own path.
Unbeaten UConn is the overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament and the top seed for the Albany (New York) Regional. The Huskies begin their bid for a 12th national championship and fifth in six seasons on Saturday against Northeast Conference representative and No. 16 Saint Francis of Pennsylvania at Gampel Pavilion.
"I'm still a California girl," Samuelson said with a smile. "In the fall, I'm the first person on campus with a winter jacket on. In the spring, I'm the last one to take my jacket off. It's always a shock to me when it snows.
"I love the warm weather back home. Just sometimes it gets too hot and I burn easily. So I needed to be indoors. I played basketball."
While she finds a way to stand out walking around campus, it's what she's done at Gampel Pavilion and in arenas around the country that have set her apart and have her on her way to a second straight All-American season. The 6-foot-3 guard enters the NCAA tournament averaging 17.9 points on 53.1 percent shooting from the floor, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.7 assists. She's the reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and on Wednesday was named as one of four finalists for the 2018 Wade Trophy as WBCA national Player of the Year.
No one knew when she got serious about the game that she would become the most-decorated player in her family. But it didn't them long to figure out the potential was there.
"I was good at it and I liked that part," Samuelson said. "I liked that I was better than other people or my teammates. That might not be the greatest thing to say because it doesn't sound all that great. But I wanted to get better.
"Then people would start to tell me, 'You could be the best of the sisters.' That went to my head like, 'Wow! I could be better than my sisters?' I mean, they were better than me in everything whether it was school, basketball, anything. I know part of it was because they're older, but that really motivated me. That made me more dedicated to it."
So every time she took the court with her older sisters she would be challenged.
When she was in eighth grade, Bonnie Samuelson was on her way to being a McDonald's All-American and had a scholarship to Stanford while Karlie Samuelson was an emerging star alongside Bonnie at Edison High and was drawing interest from schools around the country including UConn.
"It was a good thing for me because it pushed me and motivated me," Katie Lou Samuelson said. "I could always play against someone bigger, faster, stronger than me. Since they were older, I'd be in that situation that they'd be better than me. They pushed me to be better and that brought out my competitive spirit."
Karlie and Katie Lou would play the 2011-12 season together at Edison High before the sisters transferred to powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, California.
It was at the end of her junior year that Karlie announced she would be joining her older sister at Stanford, choosing the Cardinal over the Huskies in spite of a strong bid from UConn coaches Geno Auriemma and Chris Dailey. It was widely thought Katie Lou would make it a Stanford Samuelson trifecta when it came time for her to choose.
But she would follow her own path.
"I learned about UConn when Bonnie was being recruited," Samuelson said. "We would watch games and Connecticut always seemed to be on. They recruited Bonnie a little bit and Karlie a bit more. So I knew them through that. That's when I looked up Coach Auriemma and everything UConn.
"The fact that everyone assumed kind of I'd go to Stanford ... That might have pushed me away from going there because I did want to be different from my sisters. I did want to do my own thing. When I was younger in high school, it kind of deterred me. But when I became more serious about where I wanted to go, I did look at them closely. Karlie would be there for two years and it's a great program and great school. I actually started to think Connecticut would be an option or an opportunity for me when they recruited Karlie. They wanted Karlie pretty badly. CD told me one time they thought they were going to get her. I thought, 'If Karlie can go there, I can too.' "
She made an unofficial visit here during January of her junior year when Mater Dei was playing in the HoopHall Classic in Springfield, Massachusetts, and returned in April for her official visit. She also took an official visit to Stanford.
After returning from Palo Alto, she announced her decision.
"I was on Twitter because we had told some people and I retweeted something about it," Samuelson said. "Everyone was like, 'Did you commit?' I said, 'Well, yeah, I retweeted it. Isn't it obvious?' "
She came to UConn as the consensus 2015 high school player of the year and as a freshman here would play a complementary role to All-Americans Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck. The first part of the season was filled with ups and downs but once she emerged as a starter there would be no stopping her. She'd be named to the AAC's all-freshman team and the all-tournament team. Her season would end prematurely when she broke her left foot on the first possession of the national semifinal against Oregon State -- she still managed to play through the injury the entire first half -- and missed the final versus Syracuse that capped off UConn's historic and unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship.
With the Big Three gone, she knew she would have to raise her game. If she didn't know, Auriemma gave her a harsh reminder at halftime of the Huskies' opener at Florida State.
"I can't give you a heart, Lou," Auriemma said in the locker room, as shown on his SNY coach's show. "I can draw a picture of one, but I can't give you one."
The pain on Samuelson's face showed.
"I was hurt," she said softly. "He knows that he has to be honest, even brutal, to get me to respond and change. When he said that he knew I would react. I was going to sulk and be upset, or I was going to come back and show him that he was wrong. I tried to play differently and it was a big moment in my career. It pushed me to not be how I was."
She would go on to have one of the best sophomore years in UConn history alongside classmate Napheesa Collier. She would share the AAC Player of the Year award with Collier and be the Most Outstanding Player of the league tournament after torching South Florida for 40 points on a NCAA record 10-for-10 effort from 3-point land in the final.
As a junior she's been even better even though she's played through left foot and left ankle injuries that have cost her five games. When she was voted the AAC Player of the Year earlier this month, she joined Kerry Bascom (1989-91), Rebecca Lobo (1994-95), Diana Taurasi (2003-04), and Maya Moore (2008-09, 2011) from UConn's Big East days and Stewart (2014-16) in the AAC to win a conference's top honor at least twice.
She gives credit to Auriemma and his staff.
"You hear it all the time from him, 'I'm a California kid that's sometimes too relaxed and lazy,' " Samuelson said. "But it's been really good. I feel like I can push his buttons back now that I've been almost three years playing for him. Back when I was a freshman I would have never considered it. I was terrified. We have a good relationship and I understand how he has helped me get to a place where I didn't think I could and I'm grateful for that.
Last week she was named to the AAC all-tournament team for the third straight year. Only 12 UConn players have been selected to an all-tournament team in all four of her years: Kara Wolters, Asjha Jones, Swin Cash, Ann Strother, Barbara Turner, Renee Montgomery, Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Taurasi, Moore and Stewart.
"I take a lot of pride in that, especially now that I'm older," Samuelson said. "I want to make sure that my teammates know they can count on me. Even when my shots are not falling, they know I will do something to contribute."
More individual honors will come her way as March rolls along. But what her team does the next three weeks will determine whether she'll considered her season a success or not.
The Huskies are six victories from the national championship with the trophy being awarded on April 1 in Columbus, Ohio.
Her and UConn's path starts at Gampel Pavilion Saturday.
"I'm concerned about winning," Samuelson said. "All we want to do is win and get the job done. I'll do whatever I have to do for that to happen. I'm going to do that to the best of my abilities."