There was one preseason poll in October that had the University of Connecticut women's basketball team on top. The American Athletic Conference coaches were unanimous in making the Huskies the favorite to win a fourth consecutive league regular season title.
There was hope among the coaches, though, that maybe the gap had closed between UConn -- which was 63-0 in AAC play at the start of the season -- and the best of the rest. South Florida and Temple were expected to give UConn its toughest challenges.
But in a two-week span, the top-ranked Huskies were up to those challenges -- at least the first time around. UConn buried the Bulls by 65 points at the XL Center in Hartford on Jan. 10. Then Wednesday night, the Huskies took a 34-point halftime lead and coasted to a 97-69 win over the Owls at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia.
The performance against USF over 40 minutes was probably UConn's best of the season. The Huskies matched it for about 25 minutes against Temple, though the final 15 minutes will give them something to talk about when they get back to practice Friday.
"This group is capable of doing what we did in this first half," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "They are also smart enough to know when to turn it on and, unfortunately, they are smart enough to know when to ease up a little bit and take it easy. Be sure of one thing, this particular team will never, ever pass up and opportunity to take the easy way out. They will do what is really hard to do all the time. But when it's not hard, they will take the easy way out all the time.
"That may be a generational thing. They're like, 'I'll work really, really hard. I'll do whatever you want me to do. But the other stuff after that? Coach, we already won the game with what we did in the first half. Now we have to go out and do it again in the second half? C'mon. We're smarter than you are.
"Temple outscored us in the second half, so I'm not thrilled about that. When we want to be great and we really work at it like we did that first half, we can be really great. But when we don't work at it, we're less than that."
UConn (21-0 overall, 9-0 AAC) led 25-8 after one quarter and 52-18 at the break. Its biggest lead was 39 at 70-31 with 4:06 left in the third quarter. Temple (16-5, 6-2) then scored 10 unanswered points and played the Huskies even the rest of the way to become the first team to win a half against UConn since Florida State did it in the opening 20 minutes of the season on Nov. 14.
While the Huskies weren't going to panic over the mediocre ending, as they didn't after the slow first few minutes against Houston last Saturday, it is a reminder that their margin of error is somewhat smaller than in the past three years when they had older teams.
"It shows that we can play this way when we want to, but the thing is that we have to do it every game," UConn forward Napheesa Collier said. "That's how we're not mature in every aspect. If we know that it's going to be a closer game then we come out strong. But we get ahead, and sometimes we slack off."
The Huskies placed four player in double figures led by Collier's double-double (25 points, 10 rebounds) and Katie Lou Samuelson's 24 points. They shot 61.3 percent from the floor and had huge advantages in points in the paint (58-26) and points off turnovers (25-9).
On the downside, Temple won the battle of the boards 42-30 and had a 25-9 lead in second-chance points. UConn's second-leading rebounder in the game had just four and its leading rebounder on the season, forward Gabby Williams, grabbed just two in 24 minutes.
"I don't know if we took a step forward completely today, but we are starting to make the way we played in the first half a habit," Williams said. "That's what we have to stick to. We just want to make it normal that even on our worst days we're still really good because we don't know anything else but that. If we only know how to play hard like that and have that be our game for 40 minutes, it will be a habit."
UConn leads USF by 1.5 games in the league race with Temple 2.5 games back. The Huskies host the Owls at the XL Center on Feb. 22. If UConn and USF continue to win in league play, the Bulls will get a chance to gain a share of the AAC regular season title in the finale on Feb. 28 at the Sun Dome in Tampa.
Up next, UConn will go for its 97th consecutive win Sunday when it hosts Tulsa at Gampel Pavilion (SNY, 1 p.m.).
"We could have had a better second half overall, but we came out strong and played exactly how we wanted to in that first half," Samuelson said. "It showed where we can be when our mindset and our focus are in the right place."