Desiree Elmore, Seton Hall’s 5-foot-10 force of nature, is one of the best isolation players in all of women’s basketball, averaging a point per possession so far this season.
Past Connecticut teams might have tried to stop someone like her with an on-ball defender: Geno Auriemma’s Huskies are typically among the top teams in the country defensively, and in past seasons they’ve done it in large part with strong one-on-one defenders like Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier. The 2019-20 Huskies are a different animal, however.
Toward the end of the third quarter in a game against UConn last week, Elmore drove into the lane with little difficulty. But waiting for her near the basket was 6-foot-5 sophomore center Olivia Nelson-Ododa. This is what happened next.
Nelson-Ododa has the mindset of a shotblocker at all times — but particularly in these moments, when the offensive player is coming toward her. What is she thinking about at the moment she blocks a shot?
“Definitely just trying not to swing,” Nelson-Ododa said after the game, standing in a hallway beneath Walsh Gymnasium after her blocks helped keep the Huskies undefeated. “Definitely trying not to foul. Those are the big things, but just trying to time it, kind of locate the ball, and just see if I can get in.”
Nelson-Ododa’s rejections have kept the UConn defense near its customary levels so far this season. Despite the loss of Collier, the team’s defensive anchor for four years and 2019 WNBA Rookie of the Year, and through the early-season injuries of Crystal Dangerfield, its best perimeter defender, UConn remains solid defensively, 40th in defensive points per possession, according to HerHoopStats, and eighth in the nation by that site’s adjusted defensive metric.
As Auriemma pointed out, so much of that defensive performance rises and falls with Nelson-Ododa’s ability to alter shots.
“We can take more chances,” Auriemma said. “We don’t have to play as passive defensively. If we can get Liv to ratchet up her intensity level and her energy level, we’ll be able to do even more of that.”
The numbers are encouraging early on: Nelson-Ododa has more than doubled her minutes per game, from 14 her freshman year to 29.6 her sophomore season, and she’s increased her block percentage from 9.8 as a freshman to 13.6 as a sophomore through Dec. 11, sixth in the country.
Opponents are looking for the three-point shot at every opportunity, trying to find looks beyond Nelson-Ododa’s reach. The Huskies are allowing 35.8 percent of the points against them from beyond the arc this season, which is one of the highest shares (26th-highest) of opposing points from three-point range in Division I. Relative to the rest of college basketball, that’s the highest share UConn has given up from beyond the arc since it surrendered the 10th-highest share of points from three in 2015-16, when someone named Breanna Stewart patrolled the paint. Though this ranking may be a part of the Huskies’ larger defensive identity over the years — opponents routinely look toward the three-point arc as a way to score against UConn — Nelson-Ododa’s defensive prowess has arguably intensified that phenomenon.
“Sometimes we can be like, it’s fine, Liv’s got it,” UConn forward Megan Walker said. “Liv’s going to block the shot or help us out, then we’ll just go into our next rotation.”
A season after the duo of Kalani Brown and Lauren Cox led Baylor to a national title by dominating in the block rate stat — 20.2 percent as a team1 — a number of national contenders are protecting the rim as a vital part of their defensive identity. South Carolina, paced by freshman standout Aliyah Boston, leads the nation at 18.3 percent, with fellow contenders Baylor and Stanford right behind, tied for fifth place. Tennessee, with a roster that the program calls the tallest in its history — at an average of 6-foot-2 — is third in the nation.
But unlike Auriemma, who sees blocked shots as a way to take the pressure off his other defenders, Tennessee coach Kellie Harper doesn’t value the stat at all.
“I have never paid attention to the blocked shot stat,” Harper told reporters recently. “Obviously we are going to have a lot just because we are tall. I am not saying that I don’t like blocked shots, but I like position defense better. If you are in position, you are rarely trying to make blocked shots.”
The Tennessee blocks are a team effort. Six-foot-5 center Tamari Key has a block percentage of 10.6, but no one else on the team among rotation members is above 4 percent.
“I am completely fine with an easy contest block, just because we are tall and have the length to do it,” Harper said. “I don’t like giving the lane and trying to make a heroic play to get a blocked shot. I think there are very positive blocked shots, I really do. It is just not something we are going to practice or preach.”
The same cannot be said for Connecticut, where getting Nelson-Ododa in better position to block shots was the primary focus of the staff’s work with her. The Huskies need her to anchor the defense to limit points, but because her blocks will turn into transition opportunities for Connecticut, they improve the team’s offense as well.
“As we get better, as the season goes on, there’ll be more opportunities for us to tighten it up a little bit and get after people a little more,” Auriemma said. “And we’ll know that Liv’s back there doing the right thing. That’s the next step for her: playing 40 minutes of consistent defensive basketball like that.”
Nelson-Ododa understands the value of the shotblocker. She said that when she watches any basketball, her eyes are naturally drawn to whomever is patrolling the middle defensively. Now, she has an opportunity to control so much of the game in just that way.
“It’s something I’ve worked on, especially coming into college, and kind of realizing my role,” Nelson-Ododa said. “Especially with this year’s team.”
And among this year’s top teams, she and the Huskies are hardly alone.