It was less than two months ago that Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa left Colorado Springs, Colorado, after being named to USA Basketball's U-18 national team.
As the two University of Connecticut freshmen return to the United States Olympic Training Center to begin final preparations on Friday for the 2018 FIBA Americas Championship that will be played Aug. 1-7 in Mexico City, they are different players now from what they were in May. It will be the first chance to see the progress they made during the five-week summer session they spent in Storrs.
"There was an incredible difference to anything I've done," Nelson-Ododa said. "There's this expectation at UConn to perform at a certain level and it's more than I've ever done. There are so many things I've had to learn. It was an incredible experience."
Team USA, coached by Louisville's Jeff Walz, will be part of the Group A pool play Aug. 1-3 with Argentina, Chile, and Puerto Rico. Group B has Canada, Colombia, El Salvador, and host Mexico. After the conclusion of pool play, teams will be seeded for the Aug. 5 quarterfinals. The semifinals will be played on Aug. 6 and the gold-medal and bronze-medal games on Aug. 7. The four semifinalists receive bids to the 2019 FIBA U-19 World Cup.
Williams will be playing for USA Basketball for a fourth time, having won gold at the 2017 FIBA 3x3 U-18 World Cup, silver at the 2017 FIBA U-19 World Cup, and bronze at the 2016 FIBA U-17 world championships. Nelson-Ododa's only previous national team experience is with the 2016 U-17 team. She did not try out for the 2017 U-19 team due to a knee injury.
"We have incredible players on our team," Nelson-Ododa said. "We also had players that aren't able to play and had to drop out after the trials because of school. But the new players we've added, we still have a team with incredible talent and an incredible skill set. I'm looking forward to playing with everyone."
Rounding out the roster are college freshmen Jenna Brown (Stanford), Desiree Caldwell (Southern California), Nazahrah Hillmon-Baker (Michigan), Rhyne Howard (Kentucky), Ashley Joens (Iowa State), Sedona Prince (Texas), and NaLyssa Smith (Baylor), and high school seniors Aijha Blackwell, Maori Davenport, and Anaya Peoples (Notre Dame commit).
Caldwell, Davenport, and Joens were added after the trials as Notre Dame freshmen Jordan Nixon and Abby Prohaska along with Baylor freshman Queen Egbo had to withdraw due to school commitments.
"It's a great group of girls," Williams said. "We have 2018s on the team that haven't won a gold and we have 2019s who haven't won a gold. So we're on the same page and we have the same goals."
Williams averaged 3.2 points and 1.7 rebounds as the youngest player on the 2017 U-19 team, and 11.9 points and 4.0 rebounds for the 2016 U-17 team.
The 5-foot-11 guard from Little Rock, Arkansas, had junior Crystal Dangerfield -- her teammate with last year's U-19 club -- as a roommate during the UConn summer session.
"I've been thrown into the perspective of a junior," Williams said. "It was a shock at first, but I feel like I have acclimated well. There is definitely a difference. College is a faster pace. It is intense. We go 110 percent every workout, every drill. But I'm excited because I feel like I am getting a lot better this summer."
Nelson-Ododa, a 6-foot-4 forward from Winder, Georgia, averaged a team-leading 12.0 points to go along with 9.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocked shots at the U-17 world championships in Spain two years ago.
Her roommate for the summer session was two-time All-American Katie Lou Samuelson.
"I learned a lot," Nelson-Ododa said. "Now when I'm home I want to keep training as much as possible and do the things that the coaches ask me or need me to do so I'm ready for the start of the school year."
After finishing U-18 play, the freshmen will get to spend about two weeks home before the start of fall semester classes on Aug. 27.
"The team chemistry is amazing already and it's just summer," said Williams, who has predicted that UConn will win 2019 national championship. "So it's going to be a good year."
NCAA ANNOUNCES FUTURE REGIONAL SITES
The NCAA tournament will be returning to Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
Bridgeport will host a 2022 regional, the NCAA announced Wednesday with UConn and Fairfield University serving as the host institutions. Webster Bank Arena also hosted regionals in 2006, 2013, 2016, and 2017, and was a sub-regional site in 2004, 2008, 2012.
UConn is 13-1 in NCAA tournament play in Bridgeport with the only loss coming in overtime to Duke in the 2006 Elite Eight.
The 2021 sites announced by the NCAA Wednesday are Albany (New York), Cincinnati (Ohio), Austin (Texas), and Spokane (Washington). Joining Bridgeport as 2022 sites are Greensboro (North Carolina), Wichita (Kansas), and Spokane.
"The committee is pleased that over the next four years regional championship play will take place in 12 different cities, all with proven championship hosting experience," NCAA tournament committee chairperson Rhonda Lundin Bennett said in a statement. "We are counting on the bar being raised by these host communities so that our student-athletes, teams and fans continue to have an unforgettable championship experience."
The 2019 regional sites are Albany, Chicago, Greensboro, and Portland, Oregon, with the Final Four set for Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. The 2020 regional sites are Dallas, Portland, Greenville (South Carolina), and Fort Wayne (Indiana) with the Final Four at Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
ELLIOTT BACK AT UCONN
The UConn athletic department announced Wednesday the creation of the National "C" Club, which will seek to provide a deeper level of engagement through networking and mentorship opportunities for current and former UConn student-athletes, with former UConn women's basketball standout and assistant coach Jamelle Elliott heading the new enterprise.
"It feels good to be home," Elliott said in a statement. "I am extremely grateful to (athletic director) David Benedict for the opportunity to come back to a place that brings back so many fond memories. I look forward to working alongside the rest of the athletics staff to have a positive impact on our current student-athletes and I am eager to engage with our alumni and rejuvenate pride in being a 'Husky for Life.' "
Elliott, a native of Washington, D.C., came to UConn as a freshman in 1992 and was a member of the Huskies' first national championship team in 1995. She finished her career with 1,387 points and 1,054 rebounds and is one of seven members of UConn's 1,000-1,000 club.
After receiving her bachelor's degree in business management in 1996 and a masters degree in sports management from UConn in 1997, she joined coach Geno Auriemma's staff as an assistant and was part of five more national championships.
Elliott spent the last nine years as the head coach at Cincinnati. She was let go in March after the Bearcats had the best season of her tenure. They were 19-13, finished fourth in the American Athletic Conference regular season, and played in a league tournament semifinal for the first time since reaching the 2003 Conference USA championship game. Their season ended with a loss to Michigan State in their WNIT opener.