No matter how her first 31 games this season had played out for junior All-American Bria Hartley, no matter how badly her sprained left ankle had bothered her or how badly her confidence was shaken at times, she found it in her to rise above it all when it mattered most.
Hartley had long been known as a big game player. And she lived up to her reputation during this NCAA tournament as the Huskies rolled to their NCAA record-tying eighth national championship.
Hartley completed her climb back to the top by producing 13 points, two rebounds, four assists and three steals in 24 minutes in the NCAA tournament final against Louisville Tuesday at New Orleans Arena.
“I always say if you get through the rough times and then it’s just only good times ahead,’’ said Hartley, who was named to the Final Four all-tournament team. “I just made sure I pushed myself. I’m a fighter. And I know Coach (Geno Auriemma) believed in me and I know my teammates believed in me, and that helped so much throughout this entire season. One thing I can say is that when you’re struggling just don’t give up. Keep fighting. This season to me would be better than anything because we won a national championship. It’s my best one so far.’’
Looking to build off her All-American season as a sophomore, Hartley missed a total of six weeks in October and November as she tried to rest her injured ankle. The injury forced her to miss the first two games of the season too.
The time away from the court hurt probably more than her ankle did. Hartley was not the same player when she returned to practice Nov. 20. She could not move as well as she would expect. She could not perform as well as she would expect either.
But Hartley never did stop fighting.
“She has totally grown up,’’ Faris said. “It’s hard for people on the outside to really know what all is going on or taking place, but she has had her ups and downs. The season didn’t go as planned for her. She started out not even able to play. That’s not easy when you sit out for a month or so at the beginning of the season. You feel off-kilter and not really part of it. So when you come back in it’s usually a struggle. She could have just given up with all the scrutiny she received and all the frustration she went through. She handled it well and I’m proud of her.’’
Hartley had been averaging 9.0 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals in 26.3 minutes entering the NCAA tournament. But she averaged 10.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.5 steals in 28.7 minutes over the last six games in helping lead the Huskies to a national championship.
Hartley was all smiles in the UConn locker room late Tuesday night. After what she went through this season, there was plenty to smile about.
“I didn’t think I would never get to this point,’’ Hartley said. “There were times this season where I probably wasn’t as confident, but I always think to myself, `I’m a fighter.’ So I always thought I would be able to play just as well as I did last year and even better.’’
Said junior Stefanie Dolson: “It’s awesome to see. I’m proud of her for stepping up and for getting back to the player that we all know she is and she knows she is. She was such a big contributor to us winning (Tuesday) and us winning throughout the tournament. I know that she’ll bring this and kind of keep the momentum going for next year.’’
Hartley said that she will not have to undergo any procedure on her ankle during the off-season …
“My ankle doesn’t bother me any more,’’ Hartley said. “There was times during the season I said it didn’t and it did. But now at this point it doesn’t bother me at all.
“I just want to play another basketball game or something right now.’’