Louisville is latest to fall against Hartford
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Jeff Walz will take Louisville anywhere to play any team any time. As he said at a practice Thursday night, fresh off the plane in the midst of a season-opening road trip, if you're going to try and win on the road at places like Marquette during Big East play, it doesn't make sense to duck the Daytons and Hartfords of the world beforehand.
Still, I wonder if he might soon consider tearing the Connecticut page out of his atlas.
Long a house of hoops horror for the Cardinals when visiting the University of Connecticut, as is true for every team, the Nutmeg State proved no more hospitable Tuesday night, despite the fact Geno Auriemma's team was a time zone away in San Antonio. Playing at its home at Chase Family Arena, Hartford added to what is an increasingly annual haul of upsets against ranked teams, beating No. 19 Louisville 62-50.
Hartford didn't steal away the win or conjure any magic. It beat -- and beat up -- Louisville almost from the opening tip, collecting offensive rebounds on seven of its first nine missed shots and coaxing 25 turnovers out of its opponent on the night.
"Those kids play hard," Walz said of the Hawks. "That's the one thing when we came into the game today that I'd stressed to our post players and our entire team is you've got to come out and compete. I put three words on the board after the game: effort, heart and toughness. And they whupped us in all three areas. There's no question at all."
Last season it was Duke on a neutral court in Chicago. The campaign before that, Michigan State arrived in West Hartford with a national ranking and left with a loss. Three seasons ago, the same fate befell BYU. Go back four seasons and it was Temple in the first round of the NCAA tournament. And so on and so on. The games often aren't pretty -- there were 44 turnovers and 26 missed free throws between the teams Tuesday night -- but Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti has built a program whose strength is exploiting your weaknesses.
Nobody this side of Ricky Gervais uses uncomfortableness quite so well as Rizzotti.
"That's like the fun part about being a mid-major, is you know you're not going to maybe stack up physically all the time, so you've got to find a way to outsmart them," Rizzotti said. "So with Duke, they had a couple of guys that couldn't shoot a lick, so we just really doubled in the post and tried to take Chante Black out of it. We got out on the guys that could shoot but really just frustrated them by playing them probably different than they're used to. Like North Carolina doesn't sag off the ball; they're pressuring.
"Same thing with Louisville; they might play games where guys are all over them, and their kids can get to the basket on one dribble. Our game plan was we can't rotate fast enough to take that drive away, so we're just going to play off of you and play you for an outside shot. That strategy worked. And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't."
It doesn't hurt to have Erica Beverly, the undersized post with Ron Artest's game, minus the crazy. She finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds, two steals and a block against Louisville, and just as importantly, exuded calm and confidence as fouls and fatigue forced Rizzotti to pair her with three freshmen and a sophomore late in the game.
Now the challenge for Hartford, which stills plays Temple, Marist, Bowling Green and its annual game against Connecticut before facing a tough fight with Vermont in the America East, is to turn its annual night of excellence into a permanent exhibit.
"We might have caught them at a tough time for them, in a transition year, but it's still a good win for us over a ranked program," Rizzotti said. "We're trying to just take it for what it is. Last year we celebrated and jumped up and down when we beat Duke, and it ended up being the highlight of our year. We're determined to not let the second game of the year, no matter who it's against, be the highlight of our year this year."