Updated: November 18, 2013, 12:02 AM ET

Hartley hounds Lucas, UConn tops PSU

By Graham Hays | espnW.com

Bria Hartley Rich Barnes/USA TODAY SportsBria Hartley's defense was even more important than her 29 points.

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- The indoor track season is still weeks away, but Bria Hartley might have qualified in the 3,000 meters based on the laps she spent chasing Maggie Lucas on Sunday.

Not that Connecticut has bodies to share right about now. Especially this body.

On a day No. 1 Connecticut beat 13th-ranked Penn State 71-52 on the strength of its defense -- and even on a day Hartley matched a career high with 29 points to provide much of what offense her team got -- no performance was more valuable than the one she turned in defensively.

With Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Connecticut's leading scorer last season, still watching from the bench with her injured right arm in a protective sling, Hartley did her best to take Penn State's top offensive threat out of the equation.

"[Lucas] is a great player, and she really uses screens well, so it's kind of tough to get around the screens," Hartley said. "But I think your mindset going in is you can't let her catch the ball, because once she gets it, then she's a threat. I think you want to do your work early and make sure she doesn't catch it."

Lucas finished with 18 points on a flurry of late baskets, but she needed 17 shots to get there. By the time she hit her second field goal with 13 minutes remaining in the game, her team already trailed by 23 points and was in too deep a hole for even a late rally that cut the deficit to nine points to matter for more than pride. Hartley hounded Lucas most of the day, save for a brief breather from Brianna Banks in the first half.

Maggie Lucas
AP Photo/John BealeMaggie Lucas finished with 18 points on 6-of-17 shooting, including 4-for-10 on 3-pointers.

For the Huskies, it adds up to wins against Stanford, Maryland and Penn State in the span of seven days, the last two on the road and all by double-digit margins. And Connecticut played most of its 120 minutes across those games with seven scholarship players who at times seemed intent on piling up enough fouls to get the team's two walk-on emergency bodies some minutes.

The one thing linking each performance to the next was defense.

Not one of those teams scored even 60 points, and only one opponent shot better than 40 percent from the field for even a half. Asked after the game what is required for a program to compete at a championship level, at Connecticut's level, coach Geno Auriemma pointed directly to talent. Great teams have great players. There is no coaching genius to letting Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore score points. And yet on the other end, it sometimes feels as if he could take a roster composed entirely of walk-on players and make them at least a credible defensive team.

He laughed off the suggestion, but there is something to the mindset with which his teams defend.

"I think teams that are good defensively are that way because the coaching staff stresses it, and they get their players to play to their ability," Auriemma said. "A lot of teams come up short defensively because they can be better, but their players, for whatever reason it may be, don't put a value on it. It doesn't really get you noticed. The culture is scoring points."

With nine seconds left in the first half, Penn State had one more chance to close the deficit to something at least approaching single digits and build momentum with Stefanie Dolson leading a parade of Huskies in foul trouble. Instead, Lucas donned the blinders brought on by a half's worth of frustration and tried to bull her way to a 3-point attempt. She wound up wedged between Hartley and Banks in front of the Connecticut bench and was whistled for an offensive foul when she tried to create space with her forearm.

Lucas has arguably the quickest release in the game, but it still takes time. She didn't have it Sunday. Every screen she ran around, Hartley followed. Every time she tried to go right, Hartley dared her to go left.

Auriemma said he expects Hartley, as a senior and a leader, to hit the shots that she hit in this game. She overcame a 1-of-6 start (on the heels of a 4-of-21 night against Maryland) to score 19 points on the strength of four 3-pointers in the second half. If now expected, that part of her game has always been there. What also seems increasingly a given is what she can do on the other end of the floor. That wasn't true when she was a freshman and a sophomore, when she was more a reflection of that culture celebrating offense.

"Defensively, she left a lot to be desired back then," Auriemma said. "But I think with each year, we try to stress to her the importance of it, and I think last year, finally, in the NCAA tournament she came alive defensively. We were able to get her to focus on an individual assignment.

"Not that she's Kelly Faris -- nobody is. But she's become a much more complete player because of her ability to defend."

Early in the second half, Hartley sprinted from behind the play to catch up with Lucas in transition, stopped on a dime when Lucas tried to pull up, then stayed with the Penn State star through a pick-and-roll. All Lucas could manage was an off-balance leaner that missed its mark. Hartley then took the ball and pushed the other way, driving into the lane and finishing a three-point play.

The points will earn the headlines; they always do. But the points she kept off the board made all the difference Sunday.

"I'm not going to lie, I'm a little tired," Hartley admitted when her race was run.

Not nearly as weary as Lucas must have been of seeing her.

Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

George Washington's declaration

At the same time Connecticut and Maryland played what was supposed to be one of the games of the season Friday, George Washington made sure its contest a few miles away against No. 10 California was the game of the week.

Megan Nipe
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsMegan Nipe dropped 31 points in George Washington's upset of No. 10 Cal.

Megan Nipe just missed out on espnW player of the week honors, but there won't be many performances more valuable than the fifth-year shooter's 31 points in George Washington's 75-72 win. By now you know the notes -- the program's first win against a ranked team since beating Cal in the 2008 NCAA tournament, and its first win at home against a ranked team since another great shooting night -- in that case from Sarah-Jo Lawrence -- helped beat Texas A&M in 2007. But what does it mean for a program in its second year under Jonathan Tsipis?

The Colonials committed just 10 turnovers. Ball control wasn't a particular specialty of theirs a season ago (nor was it in an otherwise easy opening win against Jackson State). Cal beat them in the battle of the boards, which had been the area of most obvious statistical improvement in the first season under Tsipis.

So maybe Friday night wasn't a blueprint for how George Washington is going to return to the kind of success on the national and conference level it enjoyed under Joe McKeown. Maybe it was, and this was the evolution of a system in its second season. Regardless of the tactical details and whether or not they can be repeated for an even tougher test this week at Maryland, even a win that isn't easily repeatable can be a building block.

If you listen to Jonathan Tsipis talking about players and coaches knocking on doors on campus the night before the game to try and turn out fans, and you consider that the top two performers against Cal were grad students who appear to have bought in to a new coach and a new system, it starts to sound like a place where the culture really is changing.

Comments

Use a Facebook account to add a comment, subject to Facebook's Terms of Service and Privacy Policy. Your Facebook name, photo & other personal information you make public on Facebook will appear with your comment, and may be used on ESPN's media platforms. Learn more.