TAMPA, Fla. -- It cost $10 million for the University of Connecticut to repair the roof and ceiling of Gampel Pavilion during the summer and fall.
The Huskies women's basketball team would be hard-pressed to tell you how it looks.
"It's kind of always felt like that because we rarely get to play at Gampel," UConn All-American Gabby Williams said. "But this year it has been different. We're like the circus, we go wherever we're told to go."
Williams will play in her 126th career game Saturday night when No. 1 UConn visits South Florida in American Athletic Conference action (SNY, 7 p.m.). When she wakes up Sunday, she'll have played as many games at the Sun Dome this season as she has at the Huskies' on-campus home -- one.
The Huskies (12-0 overall, 2-0 AAC) started a stretch of six road games out of eight Wednesday with a 96-35 win at East Carolina. When the stretch ends in Memphis on Jan. 24, UConn will have played its first 19 games in 15 different venues in 11 states -- including three different buildings in Connecticut -- and Canada.
"I've felt it and I think we've all felt it," Williams said. "It's been crazy like that. I didn't know about the 15 different venues thing, but it seems like it."
"That's crazy, isn't it?" UConn coach Geno Auriemma added. "That's like the Globetrotters. You're just playing where the travel becomes problematic. You don't feel any comfort. There's never a sense of belonging to anything. You're not home long enough to practice, you're not in front of your own fans, you're constantly living out of hotels, you're on another plane ... It's like living the pro life, almost. It's not easy. It's not easy."
Williams has never lost at Gampel Pavilion but has played there only 28 times in her soon-to-be 126 games, or 22.2 percent of the time.
UConn, though, has won a NCAA record 42 consecutive true road games dating back to an overtime loss to Stanford on Nov. 17, 2014. And for the past three decades, the Huskies have been successful at taking home regular season league championships because of their success away from home.
"You don't have a choice and that's when people are really tested," Williams said. "It's not easy going to places where it seems everyone is against you. But the best guys step up when they don't have a choice."
UConn arrived here from North Carolina Wednesday ahead of the wintry conditions that hit the Greenville area and practiced on the USF campus Thursday and Friday.
The Huskies placed five players in double figures against East Carolina led by All-American Katie Lou Samuelson with 19 points. Williams added 18 points and seven rebounds as the Sparks, Nevada, native put together her best back-to-back games of the season. The reigning AAC Player of the Week and national Defensive Player of the Year has made 18 of her last 19 shots from the floor to raise her field-goal percentage from 53.8 to an AAC-leading 61.6, but has also been a force on the other side of the ball as well.
"We're at our best as a team when she is playing like that," Samuelson said. "She did it a lot last year. Whether or not she is scoring as much this year, she does one or two other things well every single game which is huge. Without her it just doesn't flow as easy as it could."
UConn found that out Wednesday when Williams sat out a portion of the second quarter that saw it go over seven minutes without a field goal.
She enters Saturday night's game averaging 11.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. Her next steal will make her the 10th UConn player all-time with 250.
USF (12-3, 2-0) is 0-23 against UConn. The Huskies won last year's three matchups by an average of 49.7 points, with USF's worst loss ever coming in the first at the XL Center in Hartford, Napheesa Collier scoring 39 in the second at the Sun Dome, and Samuelson scoring 40 -- making 10-for-10 from 3-point land -- in the third which was the AAC tournament final at Mohegan Sun Arena.
The Bulls do have the league's second-leading scorer in Kitija Laksa, an all-AAC first-team pick who set a NCAA single-game record by making 11 consecutive 3-point shots in a 40-point performance in a win over Southern University on Dec. 15 and had 36 points in a loss to Notre Dame on Nov. 25. They also have the AAC's reigning Most Improved Player in Maria Jespersen and the 2017 AAC Freshman of the Year in Tamara Henshaw. What will help them Saturday night that they didn't have last year is the return of defensive stalwart Laura Ferreira from a foot injury and the addition of transfer post player Alyssa Rader. UConn and USF were picked 1-2 in the AAC preseason coaches poll. Central Florida and Houston are the only other unbeatens in league play.
While the weather has been unseasonably cool during the Huskies' stay here, they know they'll be heading back to a foot of new snow after the game. But at least they'll be home.
"These two (East Carolina and South Florida) are not exactly short trips and then our next two are Houston and Texas," Auriemma said. "So you can't get much further than that in our league. Hopefully with all that travel in November, we understand. 'This is what we have to do and you have to put up with a lot of stuff.' Not being in school certainly is one less thing to worry about. And when we get back to school ... The schedule hasn't been kind to us up to this point, but it will be worth it when February comes around."
Following USF, UConn's next game will be Tuesday against UCF -- at Gampel Pavilion.
EIGHT WOULD BE GREAT
Mikayla Coombs only got an assist in the stat sheet, but a play the freshman guard made towards the end of the UConn's win over East Carolina Wednesday scored a lot of points for her with her teammates and coaches.
With two minutes left in the rout, Coombs stepped into a passing lane and got a steal. She could have finished it off with ease herself but instead made a pass to classmate Lexi Gordon, who netted the layup for the first points of her career. The unselfish play had the Huskies' top seven on the bench cheering and on their feet.
"It was great," Samuelson said. "That was one of the biggest things that really stood out to me in the fourth quarter with those guys in the game, how amazing that moment was. It shows what the coaches instill in us and what we try to instill in younger players. This is all about each other. Mikayla gave that up to Lexi and that shows the kind of camaraderie we have on this team and how we want each other on this team to succeed."
Perhaps the reward from the basketball gods came on UConn's next possession when Batouly Camara found an open Coombs behind the arc and she responded with her first college 3-pointer.
Will the reward from her coaches be more playing time? Auriemma would like to build depth past his starting five and reserves Azura Stevens and Megan Walker. Coombs' game seems to fill the thing that the Hall of Fame coach is looking for in an eight-player rotation.
"I'd love for someone to become that. I don't like being limited," Auriemma said. "The six we have up to this point, and if we can get Megan healthy and going like (Wednesday), the only thing left is to get another guard, maybe. That remains to be seen who it would be. No one has separated themselves. They're up and then they're down. We still have a long way to go. And the fact we can move Megan and we move Gabby ... But we need another ballhandler, for sure. I'd love for someone to step up."
Coombs seems to have an edge to try and earn Auriemma's trust to give him competent minutes behind Crystal Dangerfield and Kia Nurse. Following three good days of practice after the Christmas break, the Buford, Georgia, native did get a second-quarter call against Memphis last Sunday to play alongside the starters and saw 11 minutes of action total but had a tough outing. In workouts, though, she had been aggressive with the ball and playing the kind of defense the Huskies need.
"At first what was holding me back was the confidence thing because I wouldn't take the initiative to drive to the basket, and that's what he wants me to do," Coombs said. "Now in practice I'm being more confident in myself and I'm getting stops on defense, which he talked to me about doing. Hopefully that will put me in position to contribute.
"I've always been the player to say 'Whatever the team needs I'm going to do.' But coming in here, you don't necessarily know what the team needs you to do because we have so many elite players. Do they really need anything? So I have gone to talk to him, and he has basically told me that I have to drive to the basket and get stops on defense. At first that was what I wasn't doing, but now I have started to come into that. Once you understand your role, it's much easier to contribute in practice and in the games. That is where I am right now."
The old Al McGuire that the best thing about freshmen is that they become sophomores is ringing true with the UConn rookies, though Walker has put together back-to-back good games after she missed the previous two with the flu.
They have support from the veterans, however, because they have all been there themselves.
"It is really hard," Samuelson said. "A lot of people get down on themselves as a freshman. When things aren't going well and you feel like you make a mistake every single day, it tends to build up. All of us have gone through that feeling like you're not good enough or you don't feel like you can make it here. But once you realize what they're trying to do, it becomes a lot easier.
"I think this year it's a little harder for them to fit in sometimes. That is on the older guys, too, because we tend to have a good flow going and sometimes it's hard to jump right into that flow if you have never played with us before. So it is about trying to figure out how to contribute in ways that is not overstepping what you can do."
UConn's 23-game winning streak against USF is its longest against any current AAC team, and dates back Dec. 28, 2002. The Huskies' longest winning streaks against a single school in program history are against former Big East opponents Seton Hall (29), Georgetown (28), Pittsburgh (28), and Providence (28). The Huskies will start a home-and-home with Seton Hall next season ... UConn and USF have three common opponents: Michigan State, Notre Dame, and Oklahoma. The Huskies are 3-0 against the trio with an average margin of victory of 22.3 points. The Bulls are 0-3 with an average margin of defeat of 8.3 points ... UConn has not lost a game in the State of Florida since falling to Stanford in the NCAA Final Four semifinals at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa on April 6, 2008. The Huskies returned to the building -- renamed Amalie Arena -- to win the 2015 national championship.