Katie Lou Samuelson admitted after the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's win over Maryland on Dec. 29 that the first six weeks of the season felt like six months.
But after rolling through January and the first half of their American Athletic Conference schedule, there's a light at the end of the tunnel for the sophomore All-American candidate and the top-ranked Huskies. Six weeks from today, they figure to be preparing for their first-round NCAA tournament game at Gampel Pavilion.
There's a lot of work to do between now and then, though, starting with Wednesday's AAC showdown with Temple at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia (SNY, 7 p.m.). UConn, which is seeking its 96th straight win overall and a NCAA record 35th consecutive road victory, has nine regular season games left -- eight in the league and South Carolina on Feb. 13.
Tune in to SNY tonight to watch UConn face Temple. Pre-game coverage begins at 6:30 p.m.!
The February stretch drive is on and it's time to pick up the pace.
"It starts with us staying focused in practice," Samuelson said. "Sometimes it can feel like things are dragging on and we're doing things over and over and over again. But we're getting to a point where it's the end of the regular season so we need to be at our best. If we can figure out how to stay focused in practice and games, it will become a habit."
UConn (20-0 overall, 8-0 AAC) has a 1.5-game lead over Temple (16-4, 6-1) and South Florida (17-3, 6-1) in the league race heading into Wednesday's action. While the Huskies and Owls face off, the Bulls play host to Cincinnati on Wednesday.
And while UConn is always good at taking things one day and one game at a time, there's always an eye at what's ahead in March.
"This is when we look at what we're doing and what it might mean come tournament time," UConn forward Gabby Williams said.
The Huskies, as expected, have had no issues in AAC play. Even when it was thought that No. 20 USF could give them a challenge, they buried the Bulls by 65 points. Their average margin of victory in league play is 47.2 points They've trailed for 1:08 -- all against Houston last Saturday -- out of 320 minutes and their smallest margin of victory was 36 at Central Florida on Jan. 1.
They believe they are better on Feb. 1 than they were on Jan. 1.
"Our defense has come really far," Williams said. "We're a lot more in condition now and our transition game has set us apart from everyone we've played. That's been getting better and better every game. We're moving the ball incredibly well. At the beginning of the year we were run-and-gun and not necessarily getting the best shots up. Now we're finding each other really well."
A look at the AAC statistics has UConn players here, there, and everywhere.
"Individually we've been getting great performances since league play started and good contributions from the bench," Samuelson said. "People have stepped up and shown what they can do. We're getting better individually and as a group, which is great for us. It's good that we'll be all that more confident going into February and the tournaments."
UConn has won 71 straight game against AAC opponents since league play began three seasons ago. The Huskies are expected to get a boost Wednesday with Crystal Dangerfield returning to action. The freshman point guard is expected to be available on a limited basis after missing five games with a stress reaction of her left foot.
Temple was the No. 2 pick in the AAC preseason coaches poll in October and has lived up to expectations. After non-league losses to Harvard and Hampton in early December, the Owls ran off 12 wins in a row before a fourth-quarter rally against USF fell short on Sunday.
With an RPI of 29 (according to RPIratings.com), Temple -- coached by former UConn assistant Tonya Cardoza -- is in position to make its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011.
"I talked to Tonya and she is ecstatic about her team and how they are playing," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "She has convinced them that the NCAA tournament is within their control. They had the same situation last year, and they let it get away from them toward the end of the season. She knows exactly what she's got. She's got two terrific guards, and they are getting better and better and better. They play hard, and they aren't an easy team to play."
The Owls are a veteran group with four players scoring in double figures. They're led by senior Feyonda Fitzgerald and junior Alliya Butts. Fitzgerald leads the AAC in assists while Butts is the only returning all-AAC first-team pick from a season ago.
"Temple has a quick, fast backcourt and they know what they're doing because they're smart," UConn guard Kia Nurse said. "A short guard lineup is not always the most fun to play against, but with Crystal coming back that will help us out for sure.
"It's always fun to play them. Kudos to them for what they've done this season and we're looking forward to a great showdown."
Temple has been much more competitive at home against the Huskies the last three years than when it has when it's visited Connecticut.
Wednesday's contest will be the Liacouras Center instead of the smaller McGonigle Hall where the last three meetings have been. It will be the Owls' first game of the season at the home of their men's team. UConn has not played Temple at the Liacouras Center, but did beat Georgetown and Duke there in the 2011 NCAA tournament Philadelphia Regional to advance to the Final Four.
"I remember when they came up here when they were really young and we played them at Gampel and the game got away from them early," Auriemma said. "It was really bad. But Tonya has taken them and they have steadily improved. She has done an amazing job. I thought she should have been Coach of the Year last year in the league because of the progress those kids have made individually and their team. I asked her the other day if she has seen signs in recruiting, and she said, 'Yeah, we're on TV a lot because we are in the same league as you guys, and people watch our style of play.' She has a good thing going on down there."
It's the first of two games between the Huskies and Owls. They will get together again on Feb. 22 at the XL Center in Hartford.