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She went from pandemic pickup games with family to U-Conn. hoops commit

Bishop McNamara’s Qadence Samuels worked her way into becoming a top recruit

Bishop McNamara’s Qadence Samuels, left, committed to Connecticut in June. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Six years before she committed to the most famous women’s basketball program on the planet, Qadence Samuels felt disqualified by her ability.

She was 11 years old and facing her first day of training for a sport she had recently decided to take more seriously. But having entered a youth basketball world in which most start specializing years earlier, Samuels did not think she was good enough to compete. Her parents, also basketball players, watched as their quiet child stood to the side and shot baskets by herself, working up the nerve to join the group.

“I was so nervous,” Samuels recalled. “It took me a few days to settle in and realize I could play with them.”

When she finally joined in, Samuels began a basketball journey that has landed her in an enviable position. She is a senior star for Bishop McNamara, one of the best high school programs in the D.C. area despite a 2-4 start this year against a brutal schedule. At 6-foot-2, she is a versatile and skilled player, the kind of positionless, tireless prospect coaches dream of. And she is destined for Storrs as part of Connecticut’s 2023 recruiting class.

“She’s the type of player that makes it all look effortless,” McNamara Coach Frank Oliver said. “But it took a lot of work.”

Samuels is the second oldest of seven children, all of whom play basketball. Her older brother, Qwanzi, also played in the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (at St. John’s) and is now on the team at George Washington. Qadence started playing at a young age, but it took her a while to see the sport as a passion. In the bleachers watching her brothers and sisters, she was more of a bored sibling than a student of the game.

“She was always around basketball but really didn’t take to it until she was around 11,” said her dad, Qwanzi. “It wasn’t until then that we knew she loved it.”

In Qadence’s memory, that shift in mind-set happened in part because she realized she had potential, just as her father told her. After conquering her nerves and getting involved in more full-time training, she became a sought-after middle school recruit.

She joined a McNamara team that was loaded with Division I talent, and she carved out a small role her freshman year as the Mustangs marched to their first WCAC title in more than a decade. But any momentum that had been built that winter by Samuels or her team was halted in the spring by the coronavirus pandemic. Samuels, like so many high school athletes, suddenly had an empty calendar.

She used that free time to take her game to the next level. Samuels and her siblings would train two or three times per day, doing everything from distance running to dribbling drills. Working with a trainer and her parents, she spent hours outside the family home transforming herself from a scrappy forward to a more versatile player.

“We were trying to find the worst outdoor courts to shoot on, with the double rims and everything,” her father said. “And we would challenge [the kids] to make shots without hitting the rim. I think from that point on, [Qadence] really recognized how to put the ball in the basket. A lightbulb really went on for her.”

With seven siblings, two parents and a trainer, the Samuels family had the perfect number of bodies for games of five-on-five. Now, two years later, Qadence laughs at the memory of those contests — her brothers, sisters and parents trying their best to win a meaningless game of family pickup.

“We loved it,” said her mom, Shanda. “Everybody was home. We would be all together outside playing our own little five-on-five games. . . . And I think that time is when [Qadence] really turned a corner.”

Qadence’s parents said she always has had a motor, but they were especially surprised to see her passion during those pandemic months. Qadence said it stemmed from the same place as a lot of her hardest work: the idea that she committed to basketball late and has to catch up to the very best.

“I always felt like I had to outwork everybody,” she said.

With basketball back in full swing for her junior year, Samuels — the No. 41 player in the Class of 2023, according to ESPN — saw her recruitment pick up. In a season in which she averaged 17.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 steals for a McNamara team that went undefeated in the WCAC regular season and made the tournament championship game, Samuels attracted interest from the highest levels of the college game. She took several unofficial visits, including trips to North Carolina, Tennessee and Maryland.

“Qadence is a homebody,” her dad said. “So we really wanted an environment that is truly going to be an extension of our family in terms of values and expectations.”

But Samuels’s first official visit was to U-Conn., and it didn’t take long for her to realize Storrs was the place she wanted to be. She announced her commitment to the Huskies on June 25.

“I wanted a family culture. I wanted winning. I wanted a good education. And I wanted a really great coach,” she said. “That’s what U-Conn. offered.”

When she heads north, Samuels will be met with a roster full of talent and a new set of sky-high expectations. Those who know her best know just how she will react.

“She knows what it takes,” Oliver said. “She knows she’ll have to work, but that’s all she’s done since she’s been here: work.”