Women's Sweet 16: UConn's Napheesa Collier is relentless, but rarely rattled

Napheesa Collier leads UConn in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots this season. David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports

STORRS, Conn. -- Napheesa Collier is too young to recall the 1980s antiperspirant commercial tagline, "Never let 'em see you sweat," but it's how she's gone about her life and the business of playing elite-level basketball.

As coach Geno Auriemma puts it, Collier is the UConn player who has a "motor that's relentless." But you're not going to see Collier look worried or nervous or bothered or irritated on the court. And probably not off the court, either.

"She stays on a pretty level plane every day, every practice, every game," Auriemma said.

Collier has had a splendid senior season as she wraps up what has been a stellar college career. She enters the Albany Regional semifinals of the women's NCAA tournament third on UConn's all-time scoring list (2,349 points), third in career shooting percentage (61.6) and fourth in rebounding (1,183). When you're in the top five of any Huskies career list, you're in legendary land.

Collier is the American Athletic Conference's player of the year and defensive player of the year and an espnW first-team All-American. She leads UConn in scoring (21.1), rebounding (10.7) and blocked shots (54), and is second in assists (126) and steals (53). As the No. 2 seed Huskies face No. 6 UCLA on Friday (ESPN/ESPN App, 7 p.m. ET), Collier will be carrying the heaviest load for UConn and doing it well.

She's a never-let-up competitor, even if the score would make most ease the foot off the accelerator a little. She also has a somewhat guarded exterior that doesn't let observers past the front gate. A lot of that seems to be natural, but it was also encouraged.

"My dad always said, don't ever let the other team know you're upset, because then they win," Collier said. "If I'm frustrated, I don't want to let someone else know they're getting the best of me."

Few foes have bested Collier. She and fellow senior Katie Lou Samuelson have lost just four games as Huskies: on last-second shots in overtime in the 2017 and '18 national semifinals, and this season to No. 1 seeds Baylor and Louisville. A rematch with the Cardinals could await in the Albany final.

Collier, a Missouri native, arrived at UConn for the 2015-16 season, when the Breanna Stewart-led Huskies made a perfect run to the national championship.

Collier mostly came off the bench and averaged 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds, diligently biding her time without complaint. She had patience and foresight even as a teenager. Plus, she had to learn how to excel in UConn's offensive system.

"It's about reads, and you have to figure that out for yourself," Collier said. "It was really hard for me, especially where it's concepts and not specific plays. Growing up, on all the teams I'd been on, it was specific plays and actions for everything. I was probably not really comfortable until my sophomore year."

Now, you can't imagine any player looking more comfortable in UConn's read-and-react system than Collier does. She seems to make the right cut and find the open space effortlessly. One can empathize with countless defenders musing, "I thought I was guarding her, and suddenly I wasn't."

She's also UConn's top defender. And while the rah-rah, let's-go-get-them stuff is not her deal, she leads by flat-out getting things done.

When it looked a bit shaky against Buffalo in the NCAA second round, Collier was the stabilizer. She finished that game with 27 points, 16 rebounds, 8 assists and 3 blocked shots while playing all 40 minutes.

Auriemma says, "She has the perfect temperament for a great player."

Show-Me State star

It seems odd that two of the best players in UConn history would be from the capital of Missouri. But Maya Moore was born in Jefferson City in 1989, and Collier in 1996. Moore moved to Atlanta when she was 11, but, still, it meant something to Collier that such a standout player shared the same hometown.

There's at least a chance Collier might end up on the same WNBA team as Moore, if she's still available and the Minnesota Lynx take her at No. 6 overall in April's draft.

Moore isn't playing basketball this season, though, as she's focusing on other things like her faith and social-justice issues. Moore is one of several former UConn players -- among them Stewart, Tina Charles and Swin Cash -- who have an off-court passion for pursuits that help others. It seems likely we'll see Collier similarly involved. It's in her blood.

Collier's late grandfather, Gershon Collier, was an ambassador to the United States from Sierra Leone in the 1960s who helped negotiate his country's independence from the United Kingdom. There's a photo of him meeting with John F. Kennedy in the White House a couple of days before the president was assassinated in November 1963.

Napheesa's grandfather died two years before she was born, but she knows him through her father, Gamal Collier. Gamal moved to the United States in the early 1990s, ending up in the Midwest because it was more affordable than the East Coast. Napheesa's mother, Sarah, grew up in mid-Missouri and met Gamal at Lincoln University in Jefferson City.

It has been Napheesa's goal for a while to visit Sierra Leone; a family trip is targeted for this coming December.

"I can't wait to see where my dad grew up, and the culture that's there," she said. "To see where these awesome stories I've heard happened. My dad loves telling stories about my grandpa, and what he did to get freedom for his country.

"As a kid you think, 'Oh, that's a cool story.' You don't realize the importance of it until you're older. Now, when I go home and see that picture of my grandpa, it's amazing to think, 'I'm directly related to that person,' and think about what he accomplished. I feel a sadness of not being able to meet him, so I ask my dad a lot about it. It's fascinating to me."

Collier always has had an acute curiosity about many things.

"Especially when I was little, I used to ask questions all the time," Collier said. "My parents would literally have to limit me to three, and then take a break. My dad said my grandpa would have loved that, because he loved inquisitiveness."

Finding her place

When her mother got a job promotion just before Napheesa's sophomore year in high school, the Colliers moved from Jefferson City to suburban St. Louis. There, Napheesa went to Incarnate Word, a private Catholic school that was different than the public school she was used to, but she adjusted pretty easily.

"I definitely like change," she said. "I like doing different things and meeting new people. There was more discipline, but I think it helped me. Learning how to follow strict rules prepared me for coming here."

Collier wasn't worried about going to Connecticut for college; she was eager for the adventure. But being away also has made her more fond of home.

"I've traveled to a lot of places, and I think it's good that you know what you like," she said. "And I know I like Missouri. I like my family being there, and our neighborhood. I've seen city life, and it can be cool and interesting. But I grew up in the suburbs, and I know that's how I want to raise my family someday."

Maybe that will be in the Show-Me State, maybe somewhere else. That's quite a way off. Collier has a lot of basketball to play after UConn -- in the WNBA, internationally and likely with USA Basketball -- and it will take her all over the world.

Earlier this season, she was back home as the Huskies played at St. Louis University in December. Many family members and friends were in attendance. The night before, her jersey had been retired at Incarnate Word with the Huskies there. It was a sweet mix of past and present.

Her parents have noticed there has been an added level of "grown-up" to her this season. Her time training with the U.S. national team last September before the FIBA World Cup helped her realize things she'd need to improve in her game, specifically outside shooting, but also gave her another boost of confidence.

"She almost seemed like a different person, even to me as her mom," Sarah said. "She's always had high expectations, but I've seen a greater maturity in her. She's proven a lot to herself."

Collier has nothing left to prove in college. Obviously, the past two seasons' endings have been difficult. Maybe because the Huskies weren't in those finals, Collier's place in Huskies lore is wrongly underestimated by some outsiders. It's not, though, by those like Auriemma who've watched her every day. Collier's numbers not only speak for themselves, so does her effort. Even in a program where that's demanded daily, she has stood out.

"She's so skilled, and she can do so many things," Auriemma said. "But it's the non-stop that's so impressive. She doesn't take plays off, ever."