STORRS, Conn. -- Natalie Butler can see the light at the end of the tunnel. Soon enough, the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's next game will be hers as well.
"People keep bringing that up that there's only a short time left to this season," Butler said. "We're in the home stretch. Soon we're going to be preparing for next season. It's around the corner, but hopefully not for a couple of more games."
UConn (36-1) takes on Maryland (34-2) in a NCAA Final Four semifinal game Sunday night at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida. If the Huskies advance, they'll face either Notre Dame or South Carolina for the national championship Tuesday night.
After that, the countdown to November is on.
"It's hard because you're there and you do all of the work with your team," Butler said. "You see them grow as a team and you want to be out there with them to share that experience. But I've learned that you can share the experience in different ways. I've had to be patient. But this is exciting. Just going through this is all new to me. I'm trying to be as supportive as I can and as loud as I can."
Butler -- a 6-foot-5 center from Fairfax Station, Virginia -- transferred to UConn last summer after being named the 2014 Big East Freshman of the Year at Georgetown. She will have three years of eligibility remaining starting in 2015-16.
"She's going to be good," UConn senior Kiah Stokes said. "She has improved and has a lot more confidence. She's developed a mid-range jumper which I think will help her out a lot. She's already strong and finishes well around the basket. She'll give the team a different look next year. But I think she'll do really well."
Butler was not a highly-regarded recruit coming out of Lake Braddock High, where she averaged a triple-double as a senior. She was ranked No. 140 in the Class of 2013 by Blue Star Basketball. She accepted a scholarship offer from Georgetown coach Keith Brown.
But Brown resigned in October, 2013 following complaints of unprofessional conduct and inappropriate language lodged by some of his players. Jim Lewis served as the interim coach during the 2013-14 season, compiling an 11-21 record. Lewis was not retained and the Hoyas hired Natasha Adair.
Through the turmoil, Butler averaged 13.9 points on 49.1 percent shooting from the floor, 13.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocked shots as a freshman. She led the Big East in offensive rebounding and defensive rebounding while ranking second in blocked shots and minutes played (36.2). She had 24 double-doubles. She was the unanimous selection as Big East Freshman of the Year and was a second-team all-league pick.
But she knew she couldn't stay. So Butler got her release from Georgetown.
"It was the hardest decision of my life because you want to stay loyal to your teammates and you're committed to your team," Butler said. "But once I made that decision to go I guess all the stars aligned and UConn called and I was just like, 'This is crazy.' "
She also looked at the University of Virginia before choosing to join the Huskies and coach Geno Auriemma.
Of course, that meant sitting out a season per NCAA transfer rules.
"At first it was probably the hardest thing I could ever imagine doing because you have the fever after your first year and you just want to keep going," Butler said. "So I was like, 'Redshirting, that's going to be tough. But Coach Auriemma and I had a very candid discussion and he called it a development year. I was like, 'OK, I can do that.' "
So since the start of official practice in mid-October, that's what she's done.
Every day she faces off with All-American Breanna Stewart, all-American Athletic Conference first-team pick Morgan Tuck, and AAC Defensive Player of the Year Stokes. Yet, the reward of playing in the game isn't there for her.
Her motivation has been to improve every day and she believes she's reached another level since last fall.
"Definitely, most definitely," Butler said. "Mentally, I've learned a lot. Learning from Coach Auriemma, being a student of the game, has helped me. There are things that I never knew about being a basketball player that I know now. He pushes you through things that you never thought were possible. From that aspect, I'm better.
"And from a physical aspect it's the same thing. I feel like I'm quicker and stronger and I've really hit the weights with Coach (Amanda) Kimball. Marisa Moseley has worked with me in individual sessions with my moves in the post. Coach Auriemma pushes me in practice every day whether it's in a drill or scrimmage or just thinking things through. Without UConn, I wouldn't have succeeded in the things that I've wanted to get done this season. But there's a lot more work that needs to get done. I understand that. I can't begin to tell you how great I feel with how far I've come the last eight, nine months."
Auriemma has liked what he's seen.
"It's hard to evaluate someone that's sitting out because it's unnatural," Auriemma said. "It's not natural to come to practice each day and you can't play in the game. We go on road trips and she can't come.
"What I've taken from all this time is that Natalie's an incredibly hard worker and she's got a tremendous personality. She's big enough and has skills that she can fill a really unique role for us next season. It's just mentally getting her to understand what this is all about at Connecticut. It's a big step from us from where she was. We won't know a lot more until she's in game situations. But in terms of the kind of person she is off the court, you would be hard pressed to find anyone better."
The Huskies will find out what kind of player Butler is down the line. They already know what kind of teammate she is.
She made a huge impression last December when she paid her own way to South Bend for UConn's game at Notre Dame. She'll also be paying her own expenses this coming week in Tampa.
"That meant a lot to us," UConn point guard Moriah Jefferson said.
"Her personality is crazy, absolutely crazy on and off the court," Jefferson added. "I don't even know how to explain it. Nat just sings and dances all the time. You wouldn't expect it from her and then you just turn around ... It's kind of like another Stefanie Dolson. I guess it's something we recruit here, 6-5 singing and dancing post players."
The UConn coaching staff treats Butler no different than any of the active players.
It's made the adjustment easier.
"I knew that the standards were high when I came here," Butler said. "I'm just very thankful that the coaches stay on top of me. When they push you like that, when they're on top of you like that, that shows how interested they are in you. It's a compliment and a blessing in disguise that they are staying so involved with me throughout the year. And my teammates do the same thing. They push me every single day."
The light at the end of the tunnel gets brighter every day. So, it appears, does her future at UConn.