Bria Hartley was looking for something extra today. Something to give her a boost offensively, something that would sharpen her shooting accuracy.
So Hartley turned to the best perimeter shooter in the country for an assist.
“I actually went to Kaleena (Mosqueda-Lewis) when I hit like the first 3 (early in the second half),’’ Hartley said. “I said, `I need some something.’ And I rubbed her hands. You’ve got to go out there and regardless of what happens you’ve got to play and you have to be able to step up for your team. So I wanted to be able to do that.’’
Hartley stepped up in a big way, scoring 19 of her career-high 29 points in the second half as UConn seized a 71-52 victory over No. 13 Penn State. She also single-handedly deflated a comeback bid by the Lady Lions.
What was once a 23-point lead had been cut to 57-48 with 5:30 remaining. Hartley promptly scored the next eight points for the Huskies on a short jumper in the lane following a missed layup by Breanna Stewart and a pair of 3-pointers.
Hartley later made another 3-pointer with 24.6 seconds left as she outscored Penn State 11-4 down the stretch.
“I think anytime I’m out there on the court I’m trying to make a play, trying to create for my teammates,’’ Hartley said. “So I think when you’re out there you’ve just got to be ready. You have to be aggressive and make plays every time you’re out there because it’s just going to benefit our team.’’
Said UConn coach Geno Auriemma: “I’ve had some great (guards), obviously. And if you mention her in the same breath as some of those other ones then obviously she’s … We probably forget because she struggled last year, but not too many guys at Connecticut have made first-team All-American as a sophomore. And she did. And none of it surprises me. I saw her in high school. She was incredibly, incredibly confident. Incredibly confident. And always wanted the ball in pressure situations. Always. That’s why I kind of knew that when they cut it to nine and we just kept running our stuff we were going to find her and she was going to knock them down because that’s what she does. She’s done it since I saw her in high school.’’
Not only is Hartley averaging 19.7 points and has logged 117 of a possible 120 minutes in the last three games, but she was also asked to defend All-Americans Alyssa Thomas of Maryland and Maggie Lucas of Penn State during this two-game road trip.
“If you want to be a great player and you want to reach that next level you have to play both ends,’’ Hartley said. “Regardless if you have to guard their best player and you need to go out and do that the whole 40 minutes, and if your team needs you to score you need to step up on offense as well. And I think I take a lot of pride in my conditioning and thanks to our Strength & Conditioning (coach) Amanda Kimball, she gets in really good shape. So I think that’s what really helps me out there.
“That’s the goal, to be a perfect player. It’ll never happen, but you just try to reach that goal every day.’’
Defending the best player on the opposing team used to be the responsibility of Kelly Faris. Now it appears to have been passed to Hartley, who leads the Huskies in scoring (16.3) and assists (4.8) and is second in steals (2.0).
“Some players are just physically able to handle a lot of things,’’ Auriemma said. “Kelly was last year. And whether we helped her or not it was going to be difficult to score on her. And then with Bria, she’s got to do it a little bit different way and it adds to the stress that she also then has to be responsible for getting us a lot of good offensive stuff. The fact that when we had Caroline (Doty) and Kelly you’ve got two guys in the rotation who were pretty smart and experienced. Now she looks over and she sees Saniya (Chong) over here and Moriah (Jefferson) over here and Brianna Banks over here who didn’t play at all last year and would be like a sophomore really. So there’s a lot that goes into her mind right now about what she has to do. And I think just going by the (four) games that she’s played so far she’s been phenomenal at handling all those things.’’