ST. LOUIS - There was enough UConn gear around Chaifetz Arena on Tuesday to know that one of this city’s favorite daughters was home.
But while many in the stands had watched her and followed the basketball career of Napheesa Collier at Incarnate Word Academy, it was the first time they had seen the senior forward representing the Huskies in their national flag blue and white. And you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.
“I hope they saw we’re always working as hard as we can,” Collier said. “No matter what challenges are in front of us, we’re going to get our business done.”
UConn came, saw, and returned to campus satisfied following a successful trip. Collier, a resident of nearby St. Charles, recorded her personal-best fourth consecutive double-double with 22 points and 11 rebounds Tuesday as the top-ranked Huskies rolled past Saint Louis 98-42 before a crowd of 7,105, the third-largest in Billikens’ history.
Forty-eight hours after rolling past reigning national champion Notre Dame to take over the top spot in the Associated Press poll, UConn (8-0) could have won on talent alone against Saint Louis (4-5). But even with the attention on Collier, the Huskies also kept their focus and put in the work necessary to win in style.
“If you’re a college basketball player and you’re on the road for five days and you have two games in three days, this isn’t high school or junior high,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “So if we had played lousy tonight then that means we’re no better than a junior high team.
“If you’re a true championship contender then you’ve got to come out every night regardless of how many days you’ve been on the road, who the opponent is, and you have to play. You have to play. Otherwise you’re not a championship level college team. And I was really proud of the way we played tonight.”
Collier was the center of attention. The three-time state champion and two-time state Gatorade Player of the Year at IWA received a loud ovation when she was introduced and scored the game’s first basket.
“It was awesome,” Collier said. “I haven’t played live in front of a lot of them for awhile. To have them here and have them show up for me was really humbling. It was really cool.”
She finished 10-for-17 shooting from the floor, though her 2-for-6 effort at the foul line was pretty forgettable. She added two assists, two steals, and two blocked shots.
“I was trying to focus and lock in on what I needed to do,” Collier said. “I don’t feel I played very well, but it was fun to be in front of my friends and family and have them here. I felt like I was fumbling the ball a lot and could have done more things.”
Her teammates were not quite buying that.
“She missed some shots she makes easily sometimes but she rebounded well and did all the things we count on her to do,” All-American Katie Lou Samuelson said.
“She’s hard on herself,” Crystal Dangerfield added. “There are always places where you think you can do better so maybe she’s looking at it like that.”
If Collier, who had her IWA number retired in a ceremony at the school Monday night, was struggling it didn’t show in her demeanor. She came out for good to another loud ovation with 8:52 remaining and was all smiles on the bench as she sat between Samuelson and Dangerfield.
“Some people are what you see from the outside,” Auriemma said. “Pheesa doesn’t really have a range of emotions. She stays on a pretty level plane every day, every practice, every game, every situation. Last night was a perfect example of that. She was pretty much the way you always see her. There was no over-the-top reaction. She was low key. The people did a phenomenal job and it was a great night for her and her family.
“So was tonight. It was a great opportunity for a lot of people who haven’t seen Pheesa play in person in a long time to share all of that. Outwardly there was no sign of anything being different for Pheesa than most every other day. The entire team was a little bit tired at the beginning of the game. But we got our wind and everything seemed to pick up.”
UConn has won 88 consecutive games against first-time opponents dating to a loss to Georgia on Jan. 15, 1996, eight months before Collier was born in Jefferson City, Missouri.
The Huskies will play their final game before fall semester final exams Saturday when they host former Big East rival Seton Hall at the XL Center in Hartford.
Sophomore Megan Walker did not play Tuesday due to a fever, forcing Auriemma to alter his starting lineup for the first time this season. So after coming off the bench 67 times, Kyla Irwin made her first start and she finished with two points and a career-high 10 rebounds in a career-best 25 minutes.
Another beneficiary of Walker’s absence was Olivia Nelson-Ododa. The freshman followed up on her fine effort at Notre Dame Sunday with her first double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) in 23 minutes.
“We try to get our freshmen to understand that even though you don’t know what you’re doing, you have to go hard and compete,” Auriemma said. “Olivia’s given us two games where her minutes have been productive. When she gets stronger, she’s going to be something else because she has all the attributes. I’m excited from the last two games for her.”