The University of Connecticut women's basketball team is in Dallas for the first time since last March. All-American forward Napheesa Collier and her teammates need no reminders.
The overtime loss to Mississippi State in the 2017 NCAA Final Four semifinals at the American Airlines Center is the 1 in the 101-1 record Huskies' juniors Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson have at UConn.
For Collier, it was also the first time since her freshman year when her Jefferson City (Missouri) High club fell in the district finals that her team lost its last game of the season. She would go on to win three consecutive state titles at Incarnate Word Academy in St. Louis before being part of the Huskies' unprecedented fourth straight national championship as a freshman.
"Losing shows you quite a bit," Collier said. "There were a lot more things that stood out to me that I needed to get better at that may have been hidden if we won again. I would have been riding that high of winning. But I knew after we lost that I had to improve if I wanted to do everything I could to help us win again."
Top-ranked UConn can reach one of its goals Saturday in its return to Dallas for the first time since last March 31. If the Huskies top SMU at Moody Coliseum (SNY, 6 p.m.), they will wrap up their fifth straight American Athletic Conference regular season title outright and the No. 1 seed for the AAC tournament.
And while the ultimate goal is the national championship, UConn (27-0 overall, 14-0 AAC) doesn't take any title for granted. The league regular season crown would be its 24th in 30 seasons.
"Any championship, no matter what level, is important to us," Collier said.
Collier has played her part in getting it.
She forward ranks in the AAC's top 10 in scoring (ninth, 15.8), rebounding (sixth, 7.6), steals (10th, 1.8), blocked shots (first, 1.9), assist-to-turnover ratio (seventh, 1.8), and field-goal percentage (fourth, 58.0). She is also averaging a career best 3.1 assists and her 85 assists total is already a career high.
"To see her passing come up to where it is now and know that it is only going to continue to get better is kind of scary," UConn guard Kia Nurse said.
While she hasn't scored and has not shot the ball as well as she did a year ago, she has maintained a high level in some parts and raised her game in other areas. The Huskies still lead the nation in scoring (90.9) and field-goal percentage (54.0).
"The team dynamic changes every year," Collier said. "Last year I was needed to score more points, but this year we have more that can score so I don't need to score as much. I'm helping my team get better by making better passes or getting tips defensively or whatever.
"Personally, I definitely want to get better and there's a limited time to do that now."
The Huskies arrived in Dallas on Thursday ahead of Saturday's game.
On the first stop on UConn's road trip at Tulane Wednesday night, Collier scored 13 of her 22 points in the opening 10 minutes as the Huskies - who struggled against the Green Wave at Devlin Fieldhouse a year ago - took a 21-point lead and coasted to a 91-47 rout. Collier also tacked on five rebounds, two assists, and three blocked shots in her 23 minutes of action.
"Pheesa has gotten better and better," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "She's not where I would like her to be and where I think she can be, but she is better. When she is not sure, I tell her 'Just do what comes natural,' and then she goes out there and catches and shoots the ball every time she touches it. Sometimes that's good and sometimes it is not so good.
"We need her as a team to be a really good passer, because she draws so much attention. When she catches the ball, nobody can stop her one-on-one. I don't care who they are. So when she catches it, she's going to score. But this time of the year, people aren't going to let you do what you're good at. And on our team, if you are not a good passer then you are not going to get a lot of things done. Pheesa is lucky that a lot of times when she catches it she scores so I put up with some of the stuff she does with the ball."
UConn has had its way with SMU since the teams first played in 2014 and is a prohibitive favorite Saturday. The Mustangs (10-17, 4-10) have had little go right since losing all-AAC forward Alicia Froling for the year with a preseason knee injury.
And the Huskies are rolling.
"I'm happy with how our team has come together," Collier said. "It was definitely a rough start. We're finally in our groove and playing with each other the way that we need to. The disappointment is that I think we could have done to faster. But we're here."
After SMU, UConn heads home to face South Florida on Senior Night Monday. The Huskies hope this trip back from Dallas is better than the last one.
It's been motivation for Collier.
"I want to work harder to not have that bad feeling again," Collier said. "I appreciate all of the good things that we do. I want to have that good feeling we have after we win."
Nurse was named to the CoSIDA Academic Division I All-District 1 first team, as announced by the organization Thursday. The senior is now eligible to be named an academic All-American.
A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Nurse owns a 3.55 grade point average and is pursuing an individualized major. On the court she is averaging 14.7 points per game for the Huskies.