STORRS, Conn. -- There was a sense of accomplishment surrounding the University of Connecticut women's basketball team Monday night that sometimes gets lost with all the program has done the past quarter-century.
The top-ranked Huskies' 82-53 American Athletic Conference win over No. 20 South Florida at Gampel Pavilion capped off their third straight unbeaten regular season and 10th overall. On deck for UConn (29-0 overall, 16-0 AAC) is an AAC tournament quarterfinal game Sunday against either Memphis or Tulane at Mohegan Sun Arena.
But first there's a chance to reflect on what they did. The Huskies made something hard look easy (again) and they appreciated just how hard it was.
"There were times that we didn't think that we would get here," UConn senior All-American Gabby Williams said. "This one means a lot. My sophomore year with the Big Three (Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck) it seemed like it was impossible not to get it. Last year we didn't expect it in the beginning but we got there. This year there were moments that we thought there was no way we'd win all these games but we found ways. So for me this one means the most."
UConn's last regular season loss came on Nov. 17, 2014, at Stanford. The only other loss in Williams' and classmate Kia Nurse's college career came in the NCAA Final Four semifinals last March 31 to Mississippi State.
There have also been 141 wins (and counting) with two national championships, three Final Four appearances, four AAC regular season titles, and three AAC tournament crowns.
"For us, we try to take each and every day and appreciate what we have and appreciate the opportunities we've been given as a result of the people who built this place and what the coaching staff does for us every day," Nurse said. "But at the same time you have to focus on what's in front of you."
And that's why the sense of accomplishment sometimes get lost.
Six of the previous nine unbeaten regular season ended with perfect seasons. The 2003 team recovered from a loss in the Big East tournament final to win the national championship. But the 1997 season concluded with a loss to Tennessee in the regional finals and, of course, there was last year.
"I guess that they're hard to do otherwise more people would do it," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I want to say that we all celebrate and appreciate what we're doing but it is one of those things where it really doesn't register until after. Then after you look back and you go, 'Man I can't believe we did that again. Do you know how hard it is to do that once?' But sometimes we get so fixated on what the next nine games look like, and even more importantly the six after these three if we're fortunate enough.
"I told the players in the locker room afterward, 'The only thing you're guaranteed or entitled to is 29 of them. That is how many you get. That's it. Then after 29, you're allowed one more. And then if you're in the NCAA tournament you can have another.' So in reality, we either have two games left in our season or we have nine or anywhere in between there."
UConn ran the table against the toughest non-league schedule in the country that had eight ranked opponents out of 13 and included the co-champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference (Louisville and Notre Dame), the second-place team in the Big Ten (Maryland), the second- and third-place teams in the Big 12 (Texas and Oklahoma), the second-place team in the Southeastern Conference (South Carolina), the second- and third-place teams in the Pac-12 (Stanford and UCLA) and the Big East co-champion (DePaul). Nevada, which was scheduled as a homecoming for Williams, was the only non-conference opponent to finish with a losing record.
The Huskies then rolled through the AAC, as expected, by an average margin of 47.4 points.
"Arguably this was one of the tougher schedules that we've had," Auriemma said. "But we had four starters back, so you would assume that we'd be able to handle something like that. But nobody goes in thinking we're going to be able to win them all. You're not going to win them all. But sometimes you do and you get lucky.
"The thing for me is, and I told the players this, that this is the hardest year for me in the last four or five years easily. There hasn't even been another one that is close. This was really hard. There was a lot of stuff that we had to deal with this year. There were times when our record was the furthest thing from our minds and our players' minds. There were weeks where it felt like we were losing. Every day felt like a loss. Every practice was a loss. Every game was a loss. Every film session was a loss. Everything felt like we were losing, because everything was a struggle. And maybe you have to go through those times so that you can appreciate what you do. You look back and you go, 'Wow. In the middle of all that we went 29-0.'
"Tuck and Stewie's senior year, Oct. 15 came and I said, 'Hey guys, call me when the NCAA tournament starts. I don't even want to talk to you until then because there's nothing for us to do. All we have to do is show up and play our A game, and we can't possibly lose.' I never felt like that this year, not one time."
UConn overcame a pair of double-figure deficits -- one in the fourth quarter against Notre Dame at the XL Center on Dec. 3, one in the first quarter at Texas on Jan. 15 -- to stay perfect. All-American Katie Lou Samuelson missed five games with left foot and left ankle injuries and point guard Crystal Dangerfield sat out two games and struggled through others with shin splints in her left leg. Williams has dealt with hip issues since December. Reserve Batouly Camara missed the first seven games with a right knee injury and has only shown flashes of the form the Huskies had hoped to see all season. The bench -- outside of Azura Stevens -- has struggled mightily.
But here they are, unbeaten headed into the postseason.
"You've heard Coach talk about it," Williams said. "It wasn't easy for us with integrating six new players, and then having to travel as much as we traveled. It was really difficult. So it just means more that we're here."
Stevens became the fifth UConn player to be named the AAC Player of the Week with the award being announced Tuesday. The redshirt junior forward averaged 19.3 points on 61.5 percent shooting from the floor and 7.7 rebounds in wins over Tulane, SMU, and USF.
Williams, Samuelson, and Dangerfield have won the weekly honor twice each, while Nurse has been honored once.
On Monday, Williams and Samuelson were named as semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy as national Player of the Year. Samuelson won the Naismith as the top high school player in 2015. On Tuesday, Samuelson was chosen as a finalist for the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award as the top shooting guard in the country along with Asia Durr (Louisville), Kitija Laksa (USF), Arike Ogunbowale (Notre Dame), and Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State).
Nurse is one of five finalists for the Nancy Lieberman Award as the nation's top point guard. The other finalists are Lexie Brown (Duke), Katelynn Flaherty (Michigan), Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State), and Sabrina Ionescu (Oregon).
Ezi Magbegor, a 6-foot-4 forward from Melbourne, Australia, watched the game from behind the UConn bench as part of her official recruiting visit. It was her second American college visit as she was at UCLA last weekend. Magbegor also has the option of returning to her WNBL team in Australia, the Canberra Capitals ... For the 17th consecutive week, UConn was the unanimous choice as No. 1 in the Associated Press poll released Monday. The top five remained the same as the Huskies were followed by Mississippi State (30-0), Baylor (28-1), Louisville (29-2), and Notre Dame (27-2). Mercer (27-2) entered at No. 25, the first time the Bears have been ranked since Dec. 9, 1980 ... Attendance at Gampel Pavilion was announced at 9,115 Monday, the first time Senior Night has not been sold out since 2013.