Natalie Butler entered the NCAA tournament final against Syracuse on April 5 for the first time with 1:46 remaining, and she was on the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis at the final buzzer when the University of Connecticut women's basketball team won its unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship.
The Huskies will need to see much more of the 6-foot-5 junior center during the first 37 games if their drive for five is to succeed.
"I definitely think there is going to be an opportunity to play," Butler said. "I don't feel nervous. I feel at this point it has been two years, and honestly it feels like it has been two years without playing. I don't mean that in a sense that I'm bitter or anything like that. It's just that I'm very eager to play. I'm going to try to work myself in the position where I will have the opportunity to play."
It's been two years since the Fairfax Station, Virginia, native decided to leave Georgetown after averaging a double-double with the Hoyas and being named the 2014 Big East Freshman of the Year.
She sat out the 2014-15 season at UConn due to NCAA transfer rules but got herself in great shape and appeared ready to make an impact when practice for the 2015-16 campaign began. But she tore ligaments in her left thumb and the surgery sidelined her for two months.
Every time there was light at the end of the tunnel on the comeback trail, it went dark.
"I think it really mentally messed with my head," Butler said. "Unfortunately I put back on weight, and it was very frustrating to go through that. I lifted as much as I could and worked out as much as possible, but it's not the same as playing.
"Just getting confidence back after an injury is important. It was just one thing after another last season, and I couldn't get things back on track. It was very difficult for me."
She made her UConn debut in Game 11 on Dec. 30 and had 11 points and eight rebounds in a win at Cincinnati. She matched those totals against Temple on Jan. 16 and had a season high 20 points against Central Florida the next game.
Her only start came on Feb. 17 against the Bearcats and she recorded her first and only double-double of 14 points and 10 rebounds in a season-high 22 minutes.
But with All-Americans Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck filling the post and Butler's own inconsistency, meaningful minutes were hard to come by. In nine postseason games, she averaged 2.5 points and 2.7 rebounds in 6.9 minutes.
"I think it was a mixture of things," Butler said. "It was hard to come into an established team that had already been playing for half the season. Then not being able to strengthen my hand, having the extra weight, not being as physically strong as I was in the summer ... It was all frustrating. I wanted to be there and play. Having the aspiration to play and not being able to play at the level I wanted to just became more and more frustrating."
For the season, Butler averaged 5.6 points on 55.9 percent shooting from the floor and 4.0 rebounds in 12.0 minutes over 27 games.
With Stewart and Tuck now in the WNBA, Butler -- who has spent her offseason working with associate head coach Chris Dailey and assistant Marisa Moseley -- knows her time is now.
"I feel a lot different," Butler said. "Coach (Geno Auriemma) told me it wasn't about my physical shape at all. It was more about me making the mental connection and stepping up to my abilities. Confidence is a huge part of your game and can actually help take you to the next level. I definitely feel that I'm coming into my own a little bit. I can just tell. I feel more confident in my skill development.
"Coming in to the No. 1 team in the nation can be a little intimidating. I've had all this adversity and it's like one thing after another where you can't get your feet on solid ground. Now it is finally like I know what to expect because I've been through this before. I've handled all these different obstacles and now it is like, 'OK, let's move forward.' I am very, very excited to play and very hungry to play. I really want to do something special with this team."
UConn will take a 75-game winning streak into the 2016-17 season opener at Florida State Nov. 14. Three days later, the Huskies host Baylor, which may have the most talented collection of post players in the country. Notre Dame, Ohio State, Maryland, DePaul, and South Carolina figure to give UConn stern tests during the non-league portion of the schedule.
Temple and South Florida hope they have closed the gap on the Huskies in American Athletic Conference play.
Looking far down the road, the 2017 NCAA Final Four is in Dallas. To get there, Butler -- whose father, Vernon, played alongside Hall-of-Famer David Robinson at the United States Naval Academy in the 1980s -- will need to come up big.
"It's a team effort," Butler said. "The coaching staff here has given me lots of positive feedback and things that I can work on. It's great to know they have my back and it's the same with my teammates. They have always been incredibly supportive. "My dad has always said that confidence has to come from within. They can only do so much for me. At some point I have to sort of say, 'OK, this is on me. This is my turn. If I want it I have to go get it.' "
LISTER JOINS WEST-COAST HUSKIES
Jasmine Lister, who served as a graduate assistant coach for UConn's last two national championship teams, has been named an assistant coach at the University of Washington.
"You don't have to look too deeply into Jasmine Lister's basketball journey to find excellence," Washington coach Mike Neighbors said in a statement. "One doesn't start every game of her career at Vanderbilt, play more minutes than anyone in the history of the program, earn All-SEC accolades on the court and in the classroom, play in the WNBA, then win two consecutive NCAA championships with UConn without having excellence. Now that she's a Husky, we're excited for her to have the opportunity to mentor our student-athletes and share how she was able to be successful at a high level -- through hard work and sacrifice."
Lister came to UConn after helping Vanderbilt to four straight NCAA tournament appearances. She played for the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks for part of last summer and was in their training camp this spring. In May, she finished her masters degree in sports management at UConn.
At Washington, Lister will work alongside second-year assistant coach Morgan Valley, a three-time national champion at UConn. After reaching the Final Four for the first time, Washington assistants Adia Barnes (Arizona) and Fred Castro (Eastern Michigan) took head coaching jobs.