Nelson-Ododa and Edwards anchoring Huskies down low
UConn women’s basketball’s 75-52 win over No. 18 DePaul wasn’t its prettiest victory this season. While they did hold a typically high-powered Blue Demons offense to their fewest points in four years, the Huskies didn’t have a banner night on offense, either.
Despite tying a season-high with 71 attempts, UConn (6-0) set a new season-low for shots made by only converting 29. This poor performance equates to a 40.8% shooting percentage, which is nearly fourteen percentage points worse than their previous low. If not for the Huskies’ strong effort on the offensive boards, the game could’ve gone down to the wire instead of ending up as a comfortable win. UConn collected 21 of their missed shots and turned them into 22 second-chance points – the exact margin of victory.
Much of that is thanks to Olivia Nelson-Ododa. She grabbed over a quarter of the Huskies’ misses for a team-high eight offensive rebounds. In fact, DePaul (5-3) couldn’t stop Nelson-Ododa anywhere, whether it be on the glass or in the paint. The junior center rebounded all four of her missed shots and scored second-chance points off three of those as part of her 16-point, 14-rebound performance.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of Nelson-Ododa’s performance is how she responded to some tough moments in the first half. Last season, Auriemma often criticized the then-sophomore for crumbling under any adversity. But last night, she didn’t panic and simply made the necessary adjustments.
“In the first half, I thought Liv struggled a little bit with their double teams. I think we were a little bit of a hurry to get a shot off,” Geno Auriemma said. “We talked about it a little bit at halftime and I thought she was great in the second half with being a little more patient, letting the double teams come knowing that they're coming, and then finding the open shooters so she could get more rebounds.”
Wire-to-wire, Nelson-Ododa’s been UConn’s most consistent presence on offense. She’s scored at least 16 points in each of her last five games and is making 67.7 percent of her shots. The Huskies run the offense through her as her usage percentage (which measures how many possessions end with a certain player) is up to 29.9 percent – best on the team.
When Nelson-Ododa hasn’t taken the shot herself, she’s been effective at kicking the ball back outside with three assists in each of her last three games. That number could be even higher if UConn didn’t struggle shooting threes so much.
Nelson-Ododa has enjoyed a significant height advantage over whoever’s guarding her throughout most of her college career, but she didn’t start dominating her smaller opponents on a nightly basis until recently.
“The teams that we've played so far, Liv’s had a huge advantage so she's been able to kind of have her way inside and she's done what you need to do when we’ve played teams like that,” Auriemma said. “When you get to be a junior at Connecticut, consistency’s got to be your middle name. You gotta be there for us every single day – practice, games, every night – and she's doing that.”
It also helps that Nelson-Ododa isn’t on an island down low as freshman Aaliyah Edwards contributed 11 points on 5-7 shooting along with five rebounds against DePaul. They were also the only two players to make over 50 percent of their shots (min. two attempts).
“She came in and had very, very good minutes and was able to make a huge impact,” Nelson-Ododa said about Edwards. “She was strong in the post and she was able to finish through contact and also make those cuts to get wide open so people can hit her. So she did a great job tonight.”
With Edwards, UConn has two different post players that complement each other well. Nelson-Ododa is finesse-oriented and uses post moves to get to the basket. She can step out and make jump shots. Edwards is a bruising, physical presence who would rather go through a defender than around them. Together, they form a dynamic and formidable frontcourt for the Huskies.
“They’re two very strong, inside players,” DePaul coach Doug Bruno said. “They’re throwbacks in the sense that they’re low post players and you don’t see a lot of those anymore because everybody wants to be a stretch and play with guard skills. They’re both very strong with their back to the basket, strong down low. UConn does a great job of putting them in position to exploit the defense.”
Though Edwards still hasn’t seen a ton of minutes (17.0 per game), she’s been extremely efficient when she’s on the court. Her 69.0 field goal percentage is 14th best in the nation while her 10.2 points per game are fourth on the team. Edwards’ playing time should only increase as the season progresses, especially as she and Nelson-Ododa get more comfortable being on the floor together.
“Aaliyah gave [Nelson-Ododa] a great help. Aaliyah gave her some great minutes because it takes a little bit of the pressure off of having one more big defender, one more big rebounder,” Auriemma said. “The two of them are functioning pretty well together.”
The big test for both of them is coming next, though. UConn will travel to face a Baylor team on Jan. 7 that isn’t short on size. The Bears feature juniors NaLyssa Smith (6-foot-2) and Queen Egbo (6-foot-3) along with freshman Hannah Gusters (6-foot-5).
Last season, Nelson-Ododa started the year well but went 0-8 in the loss to Baylor in January. This year, she can prove she’s truly taken the next step in her career and doesn’t just beat up on smaller opponents. And for Edwards, she’ll have an opportunity to show that she’s one of the best freshmen in the nation with a strong performance on national television.
It’ll be a critical measuring stick for both players, but one they’re looking forward to.
“There's only so much time we can have with these games before preparing for the tournament,” Edwards said. “So we're trying to use these games as a kind of an indicator of how we are and where we are right now.”