STORRS, Conn. -- Molly Bent was a 4.0 student in high school -- and is a Dean's List student here -- for a reason. While the University of Connecticut women's basketball team's freshman guard loves her sport, school was her priority.
So when that first Thursday of the men's NCAA tournament rolled around, Bent found herself in a classroom and not in her living room watching games.
"I always enjoyed going to school," Bent said Friday. "But on the weekend days my family made sure that we got everything done in the morning and then once noon hit we'd sit in front of the television and watch game after game after game. We'd fight over which game to watch. Every year we'd do tournament brackets, like ESPN, within our family. I'm in the lead right now, actually tied with my brother and dad. My strategy picking teams? Go with my gut."
Crystal Dangerfield was a member of the Honors Program at Blackman High in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. But when the college postseason came around in March and there was a game, she'd find a way to watch.
"I was always trying to get out of school for any type of tournament," Dangerfield said with a smile. "Growing up, I remember getting out of school to go watch the SEC Tournament. I never really had to come up with any excuses because my mom knew how important basketball was to me. My mom is great, and I really appreciated she would be like that for me."
Bent, Dangerfield, and fellow freshman Kyla Irwin are now part of the NCAA tournament for the first time. The top-seeded Huskies (32-0) begin their bid for a fifth consecutive national championship Saturday when they host No. 16 America East tournament qualifier Albany in a Bridgeport Regional first-round game at Gampel Pavilion.
Dangerfield knows what it's like to see UConn win it all. She was in Indianapolis last year, Tampa in 2015, Nashville in 2014, and New Orleans in 2013.
"It's special," Dangerfield said. "I went to the last four Final Fours that they won so this is something that I've been dying to be a part of. I'm excited to get started."
The UConn-Albany winner will take on either No. 8 Syracuse or ninth-seeded Iowa State here Monday for a spot in the Sweet 16 at Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena.
Dangerfield, an American Athletic Conference all-freshman pick, has played well down the stretch and comes in averaging 6.3 points while ranking ninth in the league in assists (3.7) and sixth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1). Bent is averaging 1.1 points and 1.4 rebounds, while Irwin is at 2.4 points and 1.4 rebounds in limited action over 28 games.
What starts Saturday they hope ends at the Final Four at Dallas' American Airlines Center.
"It's crazy," Bent said. "I'm not used to any of this. I thought today would just be a regular practice day. Practices are always intense but lately they've been turned up even more. It's March so we have to play March basketball."
UConn sophomores Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson -- the AAC's Co-Players of the Year -- were named as finalists for the Naismith Trophy as national Player of the Year Friday.
"I'm just really proud of them on how far they've grown and how much we've been able to depend on them," UConn forward Gabby Williams said. "They work so hard and are always ready to learn. They are great teammates."
Samuelson, who was also the AAC tournament Most Outstanding Player, leads UConn and the league in scoring at 21.0 points per game and in 3-point percentage at 43.7. The Huntington Beach, California, native also ranks in the top 15 in assists (3.1) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.7).
Collier ranks in the three in the AAC in scoring (second at 20.2), rebounds (third at 8.9), field-goal percentage (first at 68.9), and blocked shots (first at 2.0). The St. Peters, Missouri, native joined Samuelson on the AAC all-tournament team.
They are also among 10 players on the final Wooden Award ballot.
"We never talk to kids about individual awards, what comes from when people vote," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "All I tell them is if you play on a championship team, if you play on a team that's doing amazing things, when they're looking to give out awards the first place they're going to look is on that team. So if you make sure that our team is having a great season, if you're lucky you get some stuff. They've done as much, if not more, than anyone in the country for their teams to get them where they are."
The other Naismith finalists are Washington senior guard Kelsey Plum and South Carolina junior forward A'ja Wilson. UConn's Breanna Stewart won the award three straight years (2014-16).
The Canadian province of Ontario is well represented in the sub-regional here with UConn's Kia Nurse (Hamilton), Albany's Mackenzie Trpcic (Hamilton) and Cassandra Edwards (Brampton), Syracuse's Chelayne Bailey (Pickering) and Julia Chandler (Toronto), and Iowa State's Bridget Carleton (Chatam).
"It's absolutely fantastic that we have that many Ontario kids," Nurse said. "I've played against or with pretty much all of them. It's fun to be in this environment. We used to talk when we were younger about playing in an NCAA Tournament. So I'm super excited for them. I'm proud of their success. It's a testament to how it has been growing back home in the basketball community there."
Trpcic, a freshman guard with the Great Danes, has a personal connection with Nurse and her family.
"Kia is two years older than me but her father is my AAU coach," Trpcic said. "We went to rival schools within Hamilton so we always battled against each other. It's always great meeting up with her.
"I know her personally, our families are close as well. It's always nice to see someone from your hometown do well and Kia has done very well."
Trpcic is averaging 5.2 points and 4.0 assists in 25 games (a foot injury suffered right after Christmas sidelined her for four weeks). She was named to the America East all-tournament team after scoring 15 points in the championship game win over Maine.
She said she has not heard from Richard Nurse since the NCAA draw was announced Monday.
"We've been trying to keep it on the low," Trpcic said. "My dad is going to be there tomorrow. Kia's dad is going to be there tomorrow. I don't know if they're going to carpool, but ...
"He's a tough coach. But he's a character. He's a very good guy and he's always around basketball. You'll see him. He'll probably be up on his feet for her. Maybe for me, I don't know, probably not."
Trpcic has watched the UConn junior guard win two national championships with the Huskies along with a Pan American Games gold medal while also representing Canada in the 2016 Olympic Games.
She'll be on the same court with Nurse on Saturday.
"A lot of young girls look up to her," Trpcic said. "She's a big role model back home. It's been a really amazing past few years in basketball just in Hamilton for women."
Samuelson is coming off her 10-for-10 effort from 3-point land against South Florida. That tied with her Caroline Doty for the school record for most consecutive treys made. The NCAA record is 14 in a row ... UConn is 24-2 in NCAA first-round games with 23 straight wins. The Huskies' last loss was in 1993 to Louisville at Gampel Pavilion ... When Iowa State faces Syracuse Saturday, it will be Cyclones' coach Bill Fennelly's first game at Gampel Pavilion since March 16, 1991. That night, his Toledo team fell to UConn 81-80 in an East Regional second-round game as Kerry Bascom capped a 39-point performance with a decisive three-point play with 19 seconds left.