TAMPA, Fla. -- If the stretch drive in the race for the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year was the Belmont Stakes, Napheesa Collier would be Secretariat.
The University of Connecticut women's basketball team's forward closed out the regular season of her breakout sophomore year with a career night for the ages.
Collier had a career-high 39 points to go along with 12 rebounds and four blocks Monday night as the top-ranked Huskies completed their ninth unbeaten regular season and fourth straight American Athletic Conference perfect regular season by coasting past South Florida, 96-68, before a pro-UConn crowd of 5,948 at the Sun Dome.
"Pheesa did what's she's been doing all season," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I don't think there was anything different she did today. She knows where she wants the ball and she goes to that spot and gets it and finishes. She is incredibly efficient and incredibly consistent. She's one of those players who doesn't waste a lot of time or energy. She's hard to play against, no matter who it is.
"I don't vote based on one or two particular games. It's a whole season of stuff. We've had some great performances by a bunch of our players over the course of the season. Whoever gets it will deserve it. We'll find that out in a couple of days."
Gabby Williams added 18 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and three steals for the Huskies (29-0, 16-0 AAC) as their NCAA-record winning streak reached 104 games. Katie Lou Samuelson finished with 16 points to join UConn's 1,000-point club. Crystal Dangerfield came through with 12 points along with nine assists and no turnovers.
But Monday belonged to Collier. The St. Peters, Missouri, native was 14-for-17 from the floor and recorded her seventh double-double in the last 10 games. Her previous best was 31 points against Temple last Wednesday. She watched the final 4:22 from the bench after nailing a 3-pointer 11 seconds earlier.
"She was amazing," Samuelson said. "We know when we throw it to her in the post it's going in. One of her first shots didn't go in and I got yelled at for not rebounding. I said, 'I assumed she was going to make it so I ran back on defense.' She's unstoppable in the post. I don't think there's anyone in the country that can guard her there because she's so versatile."
Collier's point total matched the fourth highest in program history. Nykesha Sales holds the school record of 46 points against Stanford on Dec. 21, 1997. Maya Moore scored 41 points against Florida State on Dec. 21, 2010, when the Huskies won their 89th consecutive game of their 90-game winning streak, and 40 points against Syracuse on Jan. 17, 2009. Kerry Bascom put up 39 points against Toledo in an NCAA tournament second-round game on March 16, 1991, and Svetlana Abrosimova had 39 points against UCLA on Nov. 17, 1998.
Samuelson, though, believes her classmate has played better at times this season.
"I've seen her do a lot of amazing things this year and before," Samuelson said. "She scored a lot of point tonight but I think she can do that every game almost. That's why I don't know if this was her best game. She has had games where she didn't score as much but she made contributions that people may not see or may not show up on a stat sheet. That's why she's so special, she does something for us every single day, every game."
Collier said with a laugh: "Well, I did miss a free throw and missed a couple of layups. Maybe make an extra 3."
The Huskies will begin postseason play Saturday at 2 p.m. when it faces Memphis or Tulsa in an AAC tournament quarterfinal game at Mohegan Sun Arena.
Their other unbeaten regular seasons were in 1995, 1997, 2002, 2003, 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2016.
"It means a lot to us," Samuelson said. "Towards the end we started talking about it more, but in the beginning we weren't talking about anything like that. It shows how tough we were and we had a tough road to get here. We played a lot of tough teams and it prepared us and made us the team we are."
UConn scored 12 unanswered points -- consecutive 3-pointers by Dangerfield, Samuelson, Saniya Chong and Collier -- to take a 14-2 lead. Six straight points by Collier pushed the lead to 15 and it was 28-15 after one quarter.
Samuelson, who came in needing eight points for 1,000, got an old-fashioned three-point play to get to 998. Two possessions later, she took a pass from Williams and her layup with 7:00 left in the first half made her the 44th member of UConn's 1,000-point club.
Her sister Karlie, a senior at Stanford, scored her career 1,000th point against Colorado on Feb. 10. After that game she got a text from her younger sister congratulating her. Did Karlie respond?
"I haven't turned on my phone yet," Samuelson said with a smile.
The Huntington Beach, California, native is the sixth Huskies' sophomore to reach four figures, joining Abrosimova (1999), Moore (2009), Bria Hartley (2012), Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (2014) and Breanna Stewart (2015). The previous five were named WBCA All-Americans as sophomores. Samuelson, the AAC's leading scorer, made it to the milestone in 66 games. Moore did the fastest, 55 games.
"I've really tried to change my game and do a bunch of different things," Samuelson said. "I needed to be able to score in different ways. I'm glad that it shows."
Another Samuelson trey gave the Huskies their biggest lead of the first half at 47-26. UConn led 56-38 at the break.
The Bulls did score one more point in the opening 20 minutes than they did in their 65-point loss to UConn on Jan. 10, the worst in program history.
The closest USF got in the second half was 14 in the third quarter. The Huskies closed the third quarter on an 8-2 run, capped by a Dangerfield's jumper at the buzzer, to go up 80-57. UConn's biggest lead was 35.
UConn's reward for being 29-0: two days off.
"If you're not careful, you don't celebrate things along the way because you have got your eye on that one thing that's at the end of the season," Auriemma said. "If you're not careful, the only thing that matters is winning the national championship. All this great stuff that happens along the way gets brushed under the rug. 'Ho, hum. It's just Connecticut winning games again.' The winning streak? That's not for us to jump up and down about. But we just finished the regular season undefeated and it's not a big story because we've done it so many times. At this point, you hate to say it with all we've done this season, but our success is going to be determined by what we do the next four weekends.
"But last night was the first time we admitted to ourselves this is what we're doing. It's always been the next thing, the next thing, the next thing. Then you sit back and go, 'I don't believe it.' Then someone says, 'Do it again.' Well, you're out of your mind.' I don't know what to say anymore."
Ariadna Pujol led USF (22-7, 11-5) with 16 points. Kitija Laksa was again no factor against the Huskies. She needed five points during the last 50 seconds of garbage time to get to 15.
The Bulls are 0-22 against the Huskies and have never beaten a top-10 team.
American Athletic Conference tournament schedule
All games played at Mohegan Sun Arena
Friday's first-round games
Game 1: No. 9 Tulsa vs. No. 8 Memphis, 4 p.m.
Game 2: No. 10 Houston vs. No. 7 Cincinnati, 6 p.m.
Game 3: No. 11 East Carolina vs. No. 6 SMU, 8 p.m.
Game 4: No. 5 Tulane vs. No. 4 Central Florida, noon
Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. No. 1 UConn, 2 p.m.
Game 6: Game 2 winner vs. No. 2 Temple, 6 p.m.
Game 7: Game 3 winner vs. No. 3. South Florida, 8 p.m.
Game 8: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 5 p.m.
Game 9: Game 6 winner vs. Game 7 winner, 7:30 p.m.
Monday's championship game
Game 10: Game 8 winner vs. Game 9 winner, 7 p.m.