UNCASVILLE, Conn. - Natalie Butler had not been in Connecticut in a year.
With her receiving her bachelor's degree from the University of Connecticut followed by a record-setting season as a graduate transfer with the George Mason women's basketball team, being drafted by the WNBA's Dallas Wings, and receiving her masters in global affairs, it's been quite a year.
No wonder the 6-foot-5 center from Fairfax Station, Virginia, was all smiles Monday as she took the floor at Mohegan Sun Arena for the Wings' exhibition opener. It was like she had never left.
"It's cool to be here," Butler said. "Everybody has been so incredibly supportive from Connecticut which is so unbelievable to me. People follow you. Connecticut fans are so excited for the program and they want to see you succeed. The fact they followed me at Mason and were so supportive was awesome."
Butler had four points in Monday's 76-69 win over the New York Liberty. The Wings faced the host Connecticut Sun Tuesday night.
Making the Wings' 12-player roster as a third-round draft pick won't be easy, though former UConn guard Saniya Chong accomplished just that last year. But not many figured Butler would even be in a WNBA camp a year ago.
"I'm just going to keep working," Butler said. "That's been my motto from day one. It's been working well. Just worry about the things that are in your control and take it from there.
"It's been a great experience. I love the opportunity to be here. There's some incredible talent with the Dallas Wings. I'm excited to work here and Coach Taj (McWilliams-Franklin) has been working with me and giving me a lot of tips. I'm trying to take full advantage of that and continue to develop as a player."
Butler was the 2014 Big East Rookie of the Year at Georgetown before transferring to UConn that summer. In her two seasons with the Huskies, she averaged 5.5 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 0.9 blocked shots in 14.2 minutes over 63 games. While UConn won the 2016 national championship and returned to the Final Four in 2017, Butler could never carve her niche. After her receiving her degree in communications, she opted to use her final year of eligibility as a graduate transfer at George Mason.
"I learned a lot (at UConn)," Butler said. "Consistency is huge. It's part of the reason they are so successful. Every day they come in and go hard and execute incredibly well. Being able to have that mental strength every day is important to success.
"Academics were important and I wanted to get my masters. Going back home was important. To play in that environment of a local crowd, it was good to home and back to the fundamentals a bit. It allowed me to play and develop my game."
And did it develop with the Patriots and coach Nyla Milleson.
She led the Atlantic-10 Conference in scoring (19.2) and the country in rebounding (16.2) in being the A-10 Player of the Year. She broke the NCAA Division I single-season rebounding record with 563 and tied the Division I mark for the most double-doubles (33) and consecutive double-doubles (33) in a season. The only game she did not have a double-double was the opener against Michigan when she had 13 points and nine rebounds.
The Patriots finished 24-10, made the WNIT for the first time in 14 years, and won a postseason game for the first time in program history. Butler had 26 points and 20 rebounds in the season-ending loss to Virginia Tech.
"In the beginning of the year I had no expectations of how it was going to go," Butler said. "I wanted to play and enjoy my senior year. The fact that it went the way it did, I feel incredibly blessed. Coach Milleson gave me a huge opportunity at Mason and I was very fortunate to be part of a great team."
A month later she became the first George Mason taken in the WNBA Draft when she was chosen by Dallas with the 30th pick overall. She had done a telephone interview with the Wings.
"On draft night, all of my teammates showed up," Butler said. "I wasn't going to do anything. But my coaches and teammates convinced me that, 'Nat, this only happens once.' I didn't know how it would work out."
The Wings chose former UConn player Azura Stevens with their first-round pick. Chong and Butler played two years together in Storrs.
"They've been so nice and supportive," Butler said. "I asked Saniya a lot of questions that first day."
Though Butler has made it this far, she is far from satisfied.
Dallas will play its final exhibition game Sunday at home against the Las Vegas Aces. The regular season opener is April 20 in Dallas against the Atlanta Dream.
"I'm working a lot on footwork, mobility, and quickness," Butler said. "Obviously in the league the girls are a lot quicker and you have to be able to work in tight spaces.
"The fact that the Wings were willing to take a chance on me was fantastic. I want to prove to them that they made the right decision."