BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- The old saying that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores could not ring more true for the University of Connecticut women's basketball team.
While Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson were key contributors to the Huskies' 2016 national championship as rookies, they always knew that Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck would be there to bail them out if needed. But the Big Three's graduation meant Collier's and Samuelson's days in the background were over if UConn was to remain among the elite.
Among the reasons the Huskies are one win away from their 10th straight NCAA Final Four appearance is the play of their sophomore sensations. They were rewarded for their efforts Monday by being named to the five-player Associated Press All-America first team.
"They've made the biggest plays on the biggest stages all season," UConn forward Gabby Williams said. "That's what All-Americans do. Without them we wouldn't be in the position that we're in right now. They perform when they need to."
Williams was rewarded for her breakout junior year by being named to the AP second team. Junior guard Kia Nurse was honorable mention.
It's the first time in the 23-year history of the AP voting that UConn has placed two sophomores on the first team. In fact, the Huskies had only two sophomores -- Maya Moore in 2009 and Stewart in 2014 -- selected to the first team before Monday.
"It means a lot to me," Collier said. "I worked really hard during the summer to get to where I am. I feel so honored and I feel like my hard work has paid off."
Collier and Samuelson shared the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year honor. Both are finalists for the Naismith Trophy and Wooden Award as national Player of the Year while Collier is also a Wade Trophy finalist.
The St. Peters, Missouri native is averaging 20.4 points on 69.0 percent shooting from the floor, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocked shots for the top-seeded Huskies, who face No. 10 Oregon in the NCAA Bridgeport Regional final at Webster Bank Arena Monday night. She has had 15 double-doubles including 27 points and 14 rebounds in Saturday's Sweet 16 win over UCLA and is 27 points away from reaching 1,000 for her career.
"I didn't play to my full potential last year and there were a lot of factors to it," Collier said. "Everyone is so much bigger and stronger than in high school and it's a big learning curve. But I knew that I could play better. I worked hard to get stronger and be more confident with the ball.
"But you are never done get better. So I don't feel like I'm anywhere near where I need to be. I have a lot to work on."
Samuelson leads the Huskies and the AAC in scoring at 20.4 points while also checking in at 3.9 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. She was also the AAC tournament's Most Outstanding Player after scoring 40 points on a NCAA record 10-for-10 effort from 3-point land in the final against South Florida at Mohegan Sun Arena. The Huntington Beach, California, native became the sixth UConn sophomore to reach the 1,000-point plateau on Feb. 27 at USF.
"I've been challenged in more ways than I ever thought I would coming here and I feel that I've made a lot of progress," Samuelson said. "But every single day I'm reminded of how horrible I am at defense or certain things. It's motivation to keep trying over and over.
"The big thing was at the end of last season I sat down with Coach (Geno Auriemma) and we talked about how I could improve on a lot of different things. This year specifically, I really had no choice that I was going to have to do so many different things in order for our team to be successful. Coach always says that it's interesting to see what people can do when they have no other choice than to do it. I was put in a position where I felt like I had to do more things offensively and had to step up defensively. That's what I've tried to do, whatever this team needs."
Joining Collier and Samuelson on the first team were Washington's Kelsey Plum, South Carolina's A'ja Wilson, and Maryland's Brionna Jones. Plum was a unanimous selection.
Williams, the AAC's Defensive Player of the Year, is averaging a career best 13.8 points and ranks in the league's top six in field-goal percentage (third at 57.7), rebounding (sixth at 8.4), assists (fourth at 5.3), assist-to-turnover ratio (fifth at 2.4), steals (third at 2.7), and blocked shots (fourth at 1.4). The Sparks, Nevada, native posted the fifth triple-double in UConn history at East Carolina on Jan. 24 and reached 1,000 points for her career on Feb. 22.
"I really had to condition myself and change my approach to everything," Williams said. "It's pretty special. The coaches have put me in a really good position and I'm glad that I trusted them. To do it with the team we have now when people didn't expect a lot from us means a lot.
"We rarely think about individual awards. They just kind of come. "We're focused on how do we win."
Joining Williams on the second team were Ohio State's Kelsey Mitchell, Washington's Chantel Osahor, Syracuse's Alexis Peterson, and Notre Dame's Brianna Turner.
Chosen to the third team were Notre Dame's Lindsay Allen, Duke's Lexie Brown, Mississippi State's Victoria Vivians, Maryland's Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, and Oregon State's Sydney Wiese.
The AP Player of the Year and Coach of the Year will be announced this week at the Final Four in Dallas.