UConn's Butler gets major test at Final Four
For more than six minutes the 6-foot-5 Butler had a chance to go head to head with Oregon State's 6-foot-6 senior center Ruth Hamblin. Nobody was more interested to see how Butler would fare more than the UConn coaching staff.
Six seconds after getting into the game Butler hit a jumper. From the time Butler checked in until Hamblin came out of the game with 1:25 remaining Butler was 1 for 3 from the floor, had three points and one rebound while Hamblin had two points (on 1 of 3 shooting) with three rebounds.
The numbers, however, are irrelevant. Butler had a year to get accustomed to UConn's way of doing things when she redshirted following her transfer from Georgetown. This past season it was about getting back on the court in live game situations. Moving forward, Butler will be counted on to be a regular contributor and that span of 6:22 going against Hamblin might have been the most valuable stretch of playing time she has received all season.
"Going against a big girl like that is always a valuable lesson, it is an experience that can really help you," Butler said. "She is a really talented post player, she moves really well for her size. From what I understand she comes from humble backgrounds, just seems like a good person who works hard. I hope she goes far. She brought the team to the Final Four as a player going against her was great, I learned a lot and posting up, being a big guy in the post, when you go against girls who are better than you, how do you try to get a shot off? It was an awesome experience and I wish her the best.
"I was looking at her and she is definitely a role model type of player. She just seems like a good person, she is a leader and she makes a heck of impact on her team and you can see that her team responds to her. I would love to fill a spot like that."
Nobody is going to ask Butler to be a player like Breanna Stewart or even Morgan Tuck. However, looking at Hamblin play, I couldn't help but wonder if Butler could end up being that type of player (not including Hamblin's incredible shot-blocking ability) over the next two seasons.
"The ability to not foul, rebound, contest shots and just have the experience of being in the Final Four so for our team it is a great thing and for Natalie it is an awesome thing," UConn assistant coach Marisa Moseley said.
"She has great size, great touch from up to 15 feet and she is good passer. It is so different because this year she has made some plays from the high post and she is a great screener. I am excited for her continuing development and can't wait to get back and work with her."
UConn returns four players who were in the main rotation and certainly expectations are high for rising juniors Kia Nurse and Gabby Williams and sophomores-to-be Napheesa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson. While there will be plenty of eyes on incoming freshmen Molly Bent, Crystal Dangerfield and Kyla Irwin, another trio of players have a chance to make an impact as well.
Saniya Chong averaged 12.4 minutes, Butler played 12 minutes a game while Courtney Ekmark was in there 8.9 games per contest. There will be ample opportunities for more playing time with the departure of All-Americans Moriah Jefferson, Breanna Stewart and Morgan Tuck. Obviously they aren't going to replace UConn's Big Three and won't be asked to do so but a jump in playing time and productivity would be a major help moving forward.
"I have a ways to go in the offseason, I need to put in overtime and work really hard," Chong said. "I have to make sure I am a leader and a role model. Looking at the seniors, they have been the biggest role models for us, following in their footsteps will be the best thing. Just coming in , being one of the only seniors plus T (Tierney Lawlor), I think that we have a long way to go but I think we will be OK."
There was a stretch of games when it was Ekmark who was first player to enter the game after the main seven-player rotation of Jefferson, Stewart, Tuck, Nurse, Williams, Katie Lou Samuelson and Napheesa Collier. Perhaps it was just UConn coach Geno Auriemma sending a message to Chong and Butler or maybe it was a case of Ekmark displaying some signs of growth.
"It is always hard to play here but it definitely has been easier than my freshman year," Ekmark said. "Sophomore year with more experience, you have been here before and you know how it all goes so it has gone better for me.
"I think it is really important to show up every day with the same attitude, work my butt off no matter what happens. As long as I can control the things that I can control, that is what I need to do."
Assuming that Dangerfield is as good as advertised, that gives UConn five players certain to be in the main rotation. If Butler, Chong and Ekmark are able to take that next step and earn the confidence from the coaches to play in every situation and not just when the game's outcome is no longer in doubt, it would make the 2016-17 season go a little more stress-free.
"The summer is going to be a huge part of my development next year and just getting me mentally for it," Butler said. "These last couple of years, it has been a little bit of a struggle but I am pretty happy to be here on this team. I am looking forward to the next chapter, I want to step up and be a factor for this team."
Moseley, along with associate head coach Chris Dailey, works with the post players so she will not only be overseeing Butler's progress but is also eager to work with Irwin, a 6-foot-2 star out of State College (Pa.) High who had a spectacular senior season but is still a bit of an under the radar recruit.
"She just has a contagious personality, a work ethic, she loves the game, loves her teammates," Moseley said. "I have never seen somebody more happy for other people's success and she is skilled. I can't wait. With her, her body will change, her game will change but she has the right mindset, she is a coach's kid so I am excited for her to become a part of the program."
ANOTHER FIRST FOR UCONN
I missed this when it happened on Tuesday night but with Collier and Nurse each recording a steal in the national-championship game, this year's team is the first in program history to have five players with at least 50 steals.
Jefferson had a team-high 95 steals followed by Williams' 72 and Stewart's 67. Collier and Nurse finished with 50 steals each.
The 1997-98, 1998-99, 2000-01, 2001-02, 2006-07 and 2012-13 UConn teams had four players with at least 50 steals.
This year's squad also set a program record with a free-throw percentage of 80.0 with Collier (91.7 percent), Jefferson (89.4) and Chong (85.7) all shooting better than 85 percent. The real story, however, was Williams. She hit only 46.2 percent of her free throws as a freshman but finished at 75 percent this season. Among players averaging at least one foul shot per game, it was the largest one-year improvement since Marlene Stager went from 51.3 percent in the 1979-80 season to 88.1 during the 1980-81 campaign. If the criteria changed to a made free throw per game, Williams would have the greatest jump in foul shot accuracy in program history.
"It is definitely an approach," Williams said. "I think mentally I think I have grown. It started with 'I hope I don't miss this.' I attacked it in different ways."
Finally, Stewart (4,256) and Jefferson (4,130) finished sixth and 11th in UConn history on the minutes played list. Bria Hartley's record of 4,731 seems to be safe for a while as the active UConn leader in terms of minutes played is Kia Nurse and she would need to average nearly 35 minutes per game in her final two seasons to make a run at that record.
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