DALLAS -- Napheesa Collier will be 21-years-old on Sept. 23.
Her coaches and teammates with the University of Connecticut women's basketball team may not be aware of the exact date. But there are 12 WNBA general managers that are. Since her 22nd birthday is during the 2018 calendar year, Collier will be eligible to enter the 2018 WNBA Draft.
But before Husky Nation begins to panic, the All-America forward said Thursday she has no plans to move on until her eligibility is done in 2019.
"I'm not going anywhere," Collier said as UConn got ready to face Mississippi State in a NCAA Final Four semifinal game at the American Airlines Center Friday night. "I want to stay and have my college experience. That lasts four years."
Until recently, that would be a done deal. College players did not enter the draft early and the ones that left with a year of eligibility remaining -- like former Tennessee All-American Candace Parker did in 2008 or UConn's Morgan Tuck did a year ago, for example -- went out with their original class.
But there was speculation in 2012 when Baylor's Brittney Griner and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins were juniors but eligible to go into the draft as 22-year-olds that they may leave. They did not. But things changed in 2015 when Notre Dame junior Jewell Loyd, a day after the Irish lost to UConn in the national championship game, announced she was turning pro. She was the overall No. 1 pick in the draft by the Seattle Storm.
Just this week, Ohio State All-American Kelsey Mitchell -- who will be 22 this calendar year -- announced she would return for her senior year.
"Getting a degree from the Ohio State University was one of my top goals when coming to college and I look forward to completing my degree next spring," Mitchell said in a statement. "My teammates and I also have a number of goals we have yet to accomplish on the court. One of those goals is to play in the Final Four and we have a tremendous opportunity to do that next year here in Columbus."
Collier, a communications major, also stressed her desire to graduate.
"It's really important to me to get my degree," Collier said. "My parents have always stressed how important my education is because, God forbid, I'd get hurt and I couldn't play basketball. I need my degree to fall back on. And when I'm done playing I need my degree to help get a job."
Collier enters the game with Mississippi State leading the Huskies and the American Athletic Conference in scoring (20.6), field-goal percentage (68.6), and blocked shots (2.1) while also grabbing a team-high 9.1 rebounds per game. She has recorded 16 double-doubles and became the seventh sophomore in UConn history to reach the 1,000-point plateau on Monday, the night she was selected the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Bridgeport Regional.
The St. Peters, Missouri, native was the AAC Co-Player of the Year and named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press and the United States Basketball Writers Association. She is a finalist for the Wade Trophy, the Wooden Award, and the Naismith Trophy as national Player of the Year. All this after a freshman season that saw her average 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds in 38 games followed by hip surgery last April.
"I knew that I had a lot more in me and so I really worked hard over the summer to get better and stronger," Collier said. "I didn't know that I would be in this exact situation but I did hope I would get better."
She's been exactly what the Huskies have needed.
"Pheesa doesn't take herself or things too seriously," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "She doesn't really stress about much, including guarding people. She doesn't really hold onto things. If she makes a mistake, she doesn't wallow in it. She just moves on to the next thing.
"She has tremendous confidence in herself. It's a confidence based on she's worked at it, she's put the time in. She has a lot of God-given things. She's a little more mature than her years as a player. As a person, she's exactly her age and maybe that helps her a lot."
During a dinner Wednesday saluting the four teams in the national semifinals, Mississippi State point guard Morgan William picked Auriemma out of the crowd.
"I saw him and I was like, 'Oh my goodness, there's Geno. There's the man, the God of basketball,' " William said. "So I wanted to go up to him and get a picture with him. Listening to what he was saying about it being an incredible performance, I mean he has coached some great players for him to say that it really hit my heart."
The performance Auriemma spoke of was William's emotional and courageous effort against Baylor in the Oklahoma City Regional final last Monday. She had 41 points -- going 6-of-8 from 3-point range -- and seven assists to become the Bulldogs' all-time leader in that category as the Bulldogs upset the Bears 94-85 in overtime to get to their first Final Four.
William's drive with 22 seconds left forced overtime. She gave the Bulldogs the lead for good with a jumper with 2:22 left then hit a 3 on the next possession to make it 85-81. A 5-for-6 effort at the foul line over the last 49 seconds iced it.
"The game was on the line, and I was hot," William said. "I'm the point guard so I was running plays for me. They couldn't stop me. If they was going over the screens, I was going to the basket. If they were going under the screens I was shooting. It was kind of hard to guard me that day."
The performance was 29 more points than she had scored in her first three NCAA Tournament game and 12 more points than her previous career-high. It was also a record for a Southeastern Conference player.
TIME OF THEIR LIVES
This is the first Final Four with a Friday-Sunday format since 2002. From 1982-1995, it was held on back-to-back days (Saturday-Sunday). When ESPN took over the television rights in 1996, it became a Friday-Sunday format. The NCAA then went to Sunday-Tuesday from 2003 until last year.
The starting times for the semifinals here were pushed back an hour later than in the past with the Huskies and Bulldogs not expected to hit the court until around 10 p.m.
"I've said this in the past," Auriemma said. "TV and what's going on in the actual arena don't go together. So what's best for television is a 10 o'clock start on the East Coast, or a 9:30 start on the East Coast. It's not best for my players to sit around till 9:30, but it's best for TV because they're paying the bills. So they get to show the game whenever they feel like it.
"How does that affect attendance in the arena and what's more important? We say, 'Well, you know, at the regionals there weren't a whole lot of people there.' You think anybody cares about that? No. They were on TV, weren't they? That's all that counts. So what are we trying to do? Fill the arena or make sure people are watching on television?"
The games this weekend are sold out. Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport was sold out for UConn's appearance there at the regional but the attendance at regionals in Lexington (Kentucky), Oklahoma City, and Stockton (California) was dismal.
"The people in Dallas have done an amazing job," Auriemma said. "The arena is sold out. Is it because it's Friday-Sunday and people don't have to take five days off from work to wait till Tuesday night to play? I don't know. Does ESPN like Friday-Sunday? No. Are they going to make sure it gets back to Sunday-Tuesday? Yes. Is that good for us? No. Is it good for them? Yes. In the end, who is going decide what's what?
"I'm not blaming anybody. I'm just saying that's the world that we live in. In 2002, we played in front of 30,000 people at the Alamodome. Now we're worried about sellouts? A lot has happened in that time. We have to figure out how to work together, make it work for the actual student-athletes. We always use that term -- 'What's best for the student-athletes?' Playing at 10 at night, that's not best for the student-athletes."
Uconn will start four 1,000-point scorers Friday night -- sophomores Samuelson and Collier and juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams. The last time that happened was in the 2014 national championship game against Notre Dame at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville with Bria Hartley, Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Breanna Stewart ... Saniya Chong will play in her 145th game Friday night moving her into a tie for 12th with Jessica Moore on UConn's all-time list. The senior guard recorded her 300th career assist against Oregon last Monday.