Olivia Nelson-Ododa Finding Her First-Year Fit
UNCASVILLE, CT – Geno Auriemma had some simple instructions for Olivia Nelson-Ododa, the 6'4 freshman who has struggled to find consistency this season.
“I said ‘Liv, you have two things you need to do,” Auriemma recalled following the game. “You have to rebound and you have to play defense, block shots, make sure nobody makes a layup. No layups and rebound the ball. The rest? Don’t worry about it.' And that’s exactly what she did. She’s a difference maker in there, that’s all there is to it.”
Nelson-Ododa found another level in Saturday's 92-65 win over East Carolina, during the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament. Her introduction to AAC postseason play marked both a new personal peak at Uconn, and, the Huskies hope, a chance to add a needed dimension on the interior for the month ahead.
“This is my first conference tournament so I really wanted to do as much as I can to make an impact,” Nelson-Ododa said.
Her work on Saturday certainly qualified.
In only her second start all season, Nelson-Ododa grabbed a career high 17 rebounds, surpassing her previous mark of 10 early in the second quarter. Her 36 minutes shattered her previous high of 24. Her five blocks were the second-most she’s racked up in a UConn uniform.
Nelson-Ododa wasn’t just another player on the court on Saturday afternoon. She was a force.
“She really went after it,” Katie Lou Samuelson said of Nelson-Ododa. “We challenged her at halftime, make sure they don’t get a shot in the lane and she really did a great job trying to block everything she could.”
52 of UConn’s 92 points came in the paint, 57 percent of their scoring. ECU only scored 20 of 65 points in the paint, a touch under 31 percent. And not only did Nelson-Ododa alter what the Pirates could do on offense, she also changed how the Huskies played defense around her.
“You go in there a couple times, get it blocked and now, even if she’s not there, the threat of her changes things,” said head coach Geno Auriemma.
A team that has lost interior battles against some of the best competition they've faced this year — notably, Baylor and Louisville — can change the balance of power inside if Nelson-Ododa is playing at the level she found Saturday. Moreover, it will have knock-on effects for the entire team's defensive scheme.
“We can be more aggressive and we can get up on people because if they get by us we know we have someone in the back to contest every shot or at least alter every shot people get and that makes it easier for us to get out in transition and play the way we did in the second half,” Samuelson said.
Not only was it a career day for Nelson-Ododa, it marked a significant change from her first start of the season, which came against South Florida back on March 4. She only played four minutes in the first half before Auriemma had seen enough and put her on the bench for the rest of the half. The freshman returned in the second half and played well, but didn’t nearly impact the game like she did on Saturday.
And that’s all Nelson-Ododa worried about. Rebounding and blocking shots. She did her job so well that she didn’t even know she had the best game of her career.
“Oh?” Nelson-Ododa asked, with raised eyebrows and a laugh when she was informed of how many rebounds she had. “I honestly did not realize that.”
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