Here’s my advance for Monday’s nationally televised showdown between No. 3 UConn and No. 5 Duke …
There were high expectations when Bria Hartley joined the UConn women’s basketball program last season. She was a talented guard with exceptional playmaking and scoring ability. There was a toughness about her and a propensity to be a leader too.
But Hartley had played in only one game when the Huskies met No. 2 Baylor and 6-foot-8 All-American Brittney Griner at the XL Center. It was an ideal spot for Hartley to prove that she was as good as her resume indicated in front of 12,628 and a national television audience.
She missed her first six shots of the game as she looked like a typical inexperienced freshman. But like a seasoned veteran, Hartley never wavered. She scored eight points in the final 3:56, making two 3-pointers, to help lead UConn to a come-from-behind 65-64 win. She had laid the foundation for establishing herself as a big-game player, something that she has only expanded on this season.
“She’s just a competitor,’’ UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “She likes the challenge. I think Bria’s a really confident kid. She doesn’t really get affected that much by what’s happening. She knows she’s good. She believes in herself and she plays really hard. I get on Bria Hartley about some of the decisions she makes or what she does with the ball at crazy times or how she might lose her man or whatever and things that I want to fix about her. But I don’t think we have a better competitor or anybody that plays harder than Bria. And that’s why in the big games it helps her so much.’’
Hartley, who is having an All-American caliber season, has enough confidence in herself that she expects herself to play well in the biggest games on the schedule. She is averaging 13.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals in 34.9 minutes in 23 career games against ranked opponents.
But she has been even better this season. Hartley is averaging a team-high 18.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.5 steals in 38.0 minutes in six such games.
She will look to continue her big game success Monday night when No. 3 UConn (19-2) faces No. 5 Duke (17-2) at Cameron Indoor Stadium (7; ESPN2).
“I always like to stay pretty confident because I think one thing is if you don’t think you can do it nobody else will think you can,’’ Hartley said. “So just make sure you go out there and play hard and play confident. You know if you have an open shot you know you can hit it. And even if you’re missing, go out there and still have the guts to still take that shot after you missed seven in a row or do something else. Get in the lane or create for your teammates. Just go out there and believe in your ability and know you’re a good player and you can play well in these games.’’
Hartley, competitive by nature with a burning desire to win, has been at her best against the elite teams in the country this season. She is averaging 23.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 2.0 steals in 37.3 minutes in three games against Top 5 teams.
Hartley had 19 points, three rebounds, four assists and three steals in 38 minutes against No. 4 Stanford Nov. 21. And she had a season-high 25 points at No. 1 Baylor Dec. 18 and again at No. 2 Notre Dame Jan. 7.
She also added a career-high nine rebounds and six assists in a career-high 45 minutes against the Irish.
“That’s Bria,’’ UConn junior Kelly Faris said. “That’s her attitude. She’s going to say, `OK, I’m taking it on my shoulders and I’m going. I’m going with it. I’m going to lead you. I’m going to do this. I’m going to do that.’ And you just kind of feed off of her. So she’s definitely got that mentality that if she wants something done she’s going to do anything and everything to get it done.’’
The ability of Hartley, who is averaging 17.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.8 steals in 36.0 minutes in five career games against Top 5 foes, to produce under the glare of the spotlight has taken some pressure off of players such as red-hot senior Tiffany Hayes and star freshman Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. It is Hartley who has evolved into UConn’s go-to player in key spots in key games.
“She doesn’t really get fazed by much,’’ former UConn All-American Sue Bird said. “Even just in practice that I’ve been around, when Coach Auriemma yells at her she just kind of takes it. It doesn’t bring her too far down. When she’s playing well, from what I notice, she doesn’t get too high up. She just kind of stays even keel. And they’re probably going to need that from her. It’s nice to have that somebody who you can count on, whether it’s a big moment or just day-to-day kind of the routine of practice and games and what-not.’’
Coupled with her prowess against the nation’s best, Hartley is averaging career-highs of 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 32.3 minutes (team-high) this season. She is shooting 52.2 percent from the field, 38.8 percent from 3-point range and has a 1.5 assist to turnover ratio.
Hartley has played so well on the big stage that UConn sophomore Stefanie Dolson said that she expects her to play well in every game at this point. Hartley will get another opportunity to add to her legacy tonight against the Blue Devils.
“I think she proved it last year, except no one noticed because we had Maya Moore,’’ Auriemma said. “But you look at all the big games we played last year, starting with the Baylor game at home, she just has knack for making big shots or making big plays.’’