TAMPA, Fla. -- The University of Connecticut women's basketball team started the 2016-17 season at No. 3 in the Associated Press poll but moved up to the top spot by beating the teams -- Baylor and Notre Dame -- ahead of it.
The Huskies also began the season with no All-Americans nor any first- or second-team all-league players. That will change Thursday when the American Athletic Conference announces its All-Stars and it will change again later this month when national honors are released.
A 29-0 record has its benefits. Top-ranked UConn completed the ninth perfect regular season in program history Monday night by rolling past South Florida, 96-68, at the Sun Dome.
"Going in I never thought that we'd be able to get through that early part of the schedule with a group of players that had not been tested in that manner before," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "I didn't know how they would respond. Who's to say what might have happened had we lost that Florida State game and maybe lost the Baylor game and started the season 0-2, everything might have gone completely sideways. There wasn't one player that everybody in the locker room was going, 'OK, this kid has to carry us tonight.' I think there's some comfort in that and, 'Hey, we're all in this together. We all have to do our part.' There were games when some individuals just took it upon themselves to do more.
"These guys are good players, don't get me wrong. But I did not know how quickly they would come together to make this kind of team or whether they would be able to hang in there for an entire season. It might look easy but it's not easy to do what these kids have done."
Each of the usual starting five and sixth man Crystal Dangerfield have been the team's high scorer in at least one game. For the second time in program history, three players -- Napheesa Collier, Kia Nurse, and Katie Lou Samuelson -- had 30-point games in one season, with Collier netting a career-high 39 points against USF. The only person at the Sun Dome who could stop her was Auriemma, who sat her out for the final 4:22 with the game decided. Only two players in UConn history have reached 40 -- Nykesha Sales and another former Jefferson City, Missouri, resident like Collier, Maya Moore (twice).
Three players -- Nurse, Gabby Williams, and Samuelson -- have reached the 1,000-point plateau.
In their first game without All-Americans Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck last Nov. 14 at Florida State, they rallied from a seven-point third-quarter deficit -- the most they've trailed by in the second half in any game of the current 104-game winning streak -- to win by two. Three days later, they found themselves behind in the second half for the first time since the final two games of the 2008 season against Rutgers and Stanford, but came back to beat No. 2 Baylor by double figures at Gampel Pavilion.
"We were a brand new team and we did lose three great players," Samuelson said. "We were all in different roles than we were last year and it was such a big jump from what we had been doing. Last year, whether we were there or not, we were going to win the game. It was big for us to play that Florida State game and learn a lot about ourselves and it was probably a good thing it did go the way it did. We knew we had so much more to work on. We pushed ourselves as hard as we could."
During their non-league schedule, the Huskies played the teams ranked No. 2-5 in the Associated Press poll this week -- Baylor, Notre Dame, Maryland, and South Carolina. Against the rest of the country, the four are a combined 105-7.
They are 0-4 against UConn.
"After Florida State, I thought a lot about how we could better because I really thought that we could be a great team," Collier said. "Going undefeated didn't really cross my mind."
The win over USF marked the first time the Huskies have gone unbeaten in league play in four consecutive regular seasons. They'll enter AAC tournament play against either Tulsa or Memphis with a 79-0 mark in league play since it was formed for the 2013-14 campaign.
Since their close call against Tulane on Feb. 18, they've won three straight -- including wins against the 2-3 seeds at Mohegan Sun Arena -- Temple and USF -- by an average of 38.7 points.
"This team is different in so many different ways," Samuelson said. "We've grown so much and learned a lot about each other. As players we've developed things we probably couldn't do at Florida State. A lot of people have stepped up. If we were still the same team, we would have had a lot more struggles. We pick it up when someone goes down. But there's a lot more we can improve on."
If UConn wins Saturday, it will face either Central Florida or Tulane in Sunday's semifinals. Three wins in three days will lock up the overall No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
Collier, who was named the AAC Player of the Week for a league-leading fourth time this season Tuesday, is ready for the postseason.
"We've grown a lot and learned from our mistakes," she said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how we continue to grow."