- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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HARTFORD, Conn. -- Should Louisville find its way to the ACC in time for the 2013-14 season, Cardinals coach Jeff Walz probably will miss Connecticut guard Bria Hartley about as much as the midwinter weather in the Nutmeg State.
It's at least fair to say he has seen enough to know when she is in form.
"She looked fine to me," Walz said after Hartley had 16 points and seven rebounds in a 72-58 victory Tuesday against Louisville. "I mean, the kid can play. She shoots the ball well, handles the ball well. I thought she did a really good job."
That's potentially bad news for the rest of the country if it proves true beyond one game.
The third-ranked Huskies aren't exactly scuffling in advance of Monday's showdown against fourth-ranked and unbeaten Duke (with a Big East game still to play against Syracuse on Saturday). They are doing what Geno Auriemma's teams seem to do every season -- in this case, outscoring opponents by 37.2 points per game, shooting 49.8 percent from the floor while limiting opponents to 30.2 percent shooting, and beating teams on the boards by 10.1 rebounds per game.
But for the most part, they have done those things without their All-American guard looking like the player Walz and Louisville encountered Tuesday.
Slowed at the start of the season by an ankle injury that kept her out of two games but limited her far beyond that in terms of practice time and game readiness, Hartley is averaging 9.3 points per game, down from 14 last season and 12.4 as a freshman. She's shooting just 29.8 percent from the 3-point line, down from 36 percent her first two seasons. (It's a measure of both the quality of shooters and emphasis on shot selection that only twice in the past 10 seasons has a Connecticut player who attempted at least 50 3-pointers in a season hit fewer than 30 percent of them.)
Although another ankle injury that forced her out of a game at Marquette on Jan. 12 brought her physical recovery to the forefront, it's the mental rehab that interests Auriemma at least as much.
"A lot of Bria's game is, and she did it a little bit [against Louisville], is if you come out at her too hard, she's good at getting in the lane and hitting that pull-up jump shot or taking it to the basket, drawing contact," Auriemma said. "I think with the bad ankle, I think she felt like, 'I'm limited, and now I can't do the things that I'm really good at. So now I'm relegated to just standing out there and shooting.'
"There's nothing you can do about that. There's no amount of talking or cajoling or anything like that that's going to change that. It's until she feels that spark again, that quickness."
Monday night (ESPN2 and WatchESPN, 7 p.m. ET) marks the second of four regular-season games in which Hartley will share the court with one of her peers in the conversation as the nation's best guards, in this case Duke's Chelsea Gray. It follows on the heels of a loss at home against Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame, with games to come against Baylor's Odyssey Sims (Feb. 18) and Diggins again (March 4). Diggins wasn't perfect in the first game, missing 11 shots and committing seven turnovers, but she also had 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals. And when the game hung in the balance, she made big plays to lead a young team. Hartley played a season-high 39 minutes but didn't leave nearly the same imprint on the proceedings.
The Huskies don't ask Hartley to be a playmaker in quite the same manner as Gray, Sims or Diggins. Basketball Swiss army knife Kelly Faris leads the Huskies in assists, as she did last season, and Stefanie Dolson is second as perhaps the best post passer in the game. But Hartley is capable of exerting just as much influence on a game as any of her peers, and for a team battling turnovers more than is normal for Connecticut, she's important for stability's sake, with sophomore Brianna Banks and freshman Moriah Jefferson the main relief valves off the bench.
"Bria has played more basketball than all of them combined probably, at the college level," Auriemma said. "So we really, really, really need her because when she's playing like she played tonight, when she's doing the things she did tonight -- with the attitude that she had tonight, she makes the difference in a game like this."
She even played well enough to elicit some sarcastic barbs about an abundance of confidence.
"She wasn't shy, unfortunately, a couple of times," Auriemma quipped of 11 3-point attempts. "But she played like the old Bria, and with the stretch we got coming up "
He left that last thought unfinished but went on to say he didn't worry about Hartley when it came to scoring. That when the time came, she would provide the points.
One of those times might be Monday night.
19dBonnie D. Ford