Natalie Butler finds a home with the UConn women. By Rich Elliott.
By Rich Elliott
STORRS – Her smile can illuminate even the darkest room. Her personality is endearing. Following one tumultuous season at Georgetown, Natalie Butler has unquestionably found a home at UConn.
Butler, a 6-foot-5 center from Fairfax Station, Va., was a star on the court for the Hoyas as a freshman in 2013-14. Her experience off the court, though, could not have been more unsettling. Head coach Keith Brown resigned Oct. 10, 2013, only eight days after he was suspended indefinitely in the wake of accusations of unprofessional behavior. Jim Lewis was named interim head coach before Natasha Adair was ultimately hired as the new head coach April 14, 2014.
Less than a month later, Butler transferred to UConn. All of that is now behind her. Instead, she finds herself in a settling environment as she prepares to play her first season with the Huskies.
``The first thing I want to address is the whole Georgetown thing,’’ Butler said. ``You never want a program to do poorly because at the end of the day it’s women’s basketball. You want to support it as best you can. And it’s tough. We did go through a lot as a team. But I’ve got to tell you, it’s a breath of fresh air. Being here with the girls. Everyone’s so positive. We all have a common goal and no one gets caught up in any petty stuff. And if there is anything Coach (Geno Auriemma) nips it right in the bud. So it’s good. It’s strictly basketball, but at the same time (associate head coach Chris Dailey) always tells us, `Play hard, play smart and have fun.’ That’s like the biggest thing. So I think it’s great. I’m very happy to be here.’’
Butler, who was a unanimous selection as the Big East Freshman of the Year and was also named second team all-conference, averaged 13.9 points and team-highs of 13.3 rebounds, 1.8 blocks and 36.2 minutes in starting all 32 games for the Hoyas. She had 21 rebounds once, twice had 20 in a game and was ranked fifth nationally in rebounding and ninth in double-doubles (24).
Butler failed to reach double figures in rebounds in only four games at Georgetown. Sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules, she becomes a member of UConn’s active roster at an opportune time.
The Huskies lost 11.0 rebounds per game with the graduation of 6-4 Kiah Stokes and 6-0 Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.
Stokes averaged 6.8 rebounds and a team-high 3.8 blocks last season. She was second on the team in rebounding and set a team single-season record for blocks (147).
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis averaged 4.2 rebounds.
``To be honest, I can’t wait,’’ Butler said. ``I just can’t wait to get in the first game. I think for me there’s so many unknowns. I’ve been sitting out a year and just thinking like how certain things are going to come into play. So once I get just the first game I think I’ll feel a lot better. I’m excited. I’m excited to be out there with my teammates and just have that experience. And I sort of feel like, if anything, that’s one thing that I missed is just not filling that gap with my teammates.’’
Butler spent the off-season working diligently on campus and at home in an effort to get herself into ideal shape to be able to immediately help the Huskies. Her efforts helped her shed 20 pounds and create a frame that features a great deal of lean muscle.
``Coach Dailey and Coach (Marisa) Moseley have been working with me countless hours to get me ready to be in the post, to be aggressive, and to finish with contact,’’ Butler said. ``They've definitely transformed me this summer the best that they can. And (UConn Strength and Conditioning) coach Amanda Kimball has done a phenomenal job pushing me in the weight training because that’s what I am … I’m supposed to be a strong low post player. So I’ve really been working on that. I went home and just really worked my butt off for six weeks. I did some skill stuff, did some distance runs, quickness and agility and just sort of got back to the fundamentals just so I could come back ready for the season.’’
In order to function fully in Auriemma’s offensive system, Butler knows that she has to be more than simply a back-to-the-basket player. She has to move, cut, set screens and handle the ball. These are areas of her game that she also addressed during the off-season.
``You’ve got to be able to handle the ball at the top of the key,’’ Butler said. ``Stefanie Dolson did that very well. So just becoming more mobile. Being able to take that 17-foot shot, step inside the 3 or working your way to the 3-point shot. All that. I’ve been working on that in the gym so that when it does come in a situation in a game I’ll be comfortable enough to do that. And, honestly, right now after going through this year I feel like I ready for that.’’
Said UConn junior Morgan Tuck: ``Natalie has been great. She's gotten used to the system. She’s more confident and it shows in her play. There were times she would get down on herself last year. But this year if she makes a mistake, she shakes it off and moves on to the next play. She's playing hard and she's going to be a big asset to our team.’’
The opportunity to watch and learn last season proved to be beneficial for Butler. She said it has transformed her into a smarter player, heightened her court awareness, in particular setting screens and looking for backdoor cuts, and increased the overall quickness of her game.
“She’s had this past year to really kind of get a visual approach of how the season goes without actually being able to play,” UConn senior All-American Breanna Stewart said. ``And, obviously, that’s not fun. But I think she used it to her advantage and realized what she needs to get better at. She’s in great shape. She’s working hard whether it’s individuals, pick-up or lift. She just wants to come in and make an impact this season. She knows that we need someone, a big body like who can rebound, set screens and finish around the basket. She’s expanding her game ever since we got here.’’
Her teammates are confident that Butler can be an impact player this season as the Huskies chase an NCAA record fourth straight national championship. She represents UConn’s lone true post player, like Stokes did last season.
Time will tell how much of an impact Butler will make. However, she has reached a considerable level of comfort with the Huskies and knowing that she is being counted on to produce this season has further aided her preparation.
``I think one thing I did really well at Georgetown was I rebounded pretty well,’’ Butler said. ``And I think I can definitely bring that to UConn and playing here. And then I think I can bring a lot of force inside as well. I’m 6-5. I’m a big body post player. I can help bring a presence and I can help shut people down inside as well I think going against opponents. One thing I can also bring is just energy. Just trying to bring energy for our team. So we’ll see how it goes
``I thinking knowing you’re needed it definitely makes a huge difference mentally. Just knowing that, `Hey, you’re here for a purpose and the team needs you.’ It holds you accountable and you don’t want to let anyone down. And I just feed off of that, just knowing my teammates need me, I need them. Knowing that you’re needed is definitely cool.’’