The more Geno Auriemma kidded her about her lack of shooting accuracy in practice Wednesday, the more Bria Hartley knew, with confidence, that her fortune would soon be reversed.
Hartley has endured this type of scenario many times throughout her career. Bad days are customarily followed by good ones. And Thursday’s performance against UC Davis at the XL Center was nearly perfect.
She finished with 25 points in 25 minutes. She was 8-of-9 from the field, 5-of-5 from 3-point range and 4-of-5 from the free throw line.
“(Wednesday) I didn’t really shoot really well in practice and Coach kind of made fun of me like, `Oh you didn’t make enough in practice today,’’’ Hartley said. “And I told him, `Coach, you know how it works. When I miss them all then I make them all.’ I was hoping I made them all (Thursday).’’
Hartley, who became the 19th player in team history reach 1,500 career points (1,501), also finished with four rebounds, five assists and three steals. She outscored the Aggies by herself in the first half 20-17, scoring 13 points over the final 8:11 of the half.
“She played exceptionally well,’’ senior Stefanie Dolson said. “She shot the ball. I heard she was 5-for-5 from 3, which is great to see from her because she hasn’t been super confident in her shot. So to see her come out the way she did and play as well is good to see.’’
It has not taken Hartley, who was dogged by ankle and confidence issues last season, long to return to the elite form that made her an All-American as a sophomore. In fact, she has been at her best so far this season. Not only is she scoring both from the perimeter and off the dribble, she has been an exceptional playmaker. She is rebounding and she has become one of the Huskies’ top defenders.
Overall, Hartley is averaging 15.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.8 steals in 31.6 minutes. She leads the team in assists and assist to turnover ratio (4.3; 56:13) and is second in scoring and steals.
With the exception of her playing time, each of the other statistical categories represent career-highs.
“When the season started I remember making this comment,’’ Auriemma said. “I said it’s a hell of a thing that we’ve got a kid who was an All-American as a sophomore and not one person is talking about her as being a really key player for our team this year. Because that’s just the way things are. So it was all Stewie (Breanna Stewart) all the time, and Kaleena (Mosqueda-Lewis) and Stefanie. And rightly so. Those guys have earned it.
“But we kind of have short memories, most people do when it comes to the latest and the flavor of the month. And I think Bria got lost in the shuffle a little bit in the preseason hype. And what she’s done since the very first game has kind of reminded everybody, `I’m a pretty good player. As a matter of fact, I’ve proven I’m a pretty good player since freshman year. And because I had a difficult situation last year doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten how to play.’ So I’m thrilled for her and I’m happy for her.’’
How confident is Hartley in her ability? ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo recently asked Dolson, Hartley and Stewart which UConn player they would want taking the last shot of the game. Hartley responded, “Me.’’
“Bria’s a pretty tough,’’ Auriemma said. “Everybody had an answer, and Bria said, `Me.’ Because that’s who she is. That’s how she thinks. She’s not afraid. Some kids are afraid. They want to be on the receiving end of all the good stuff, but they’re scared of all the bad stuff. Bria’s not afraid. She’ll take the last shot, and if it doesn’t go in she’s ready to come in here and sit in front of (the media) and face the music. And that’s why she’s able to play well in big games for the most part.’’
Auriemma said that he noticed a difference in Hartley during the preseason, long before the season opener against Hartford Nov. 9.
“Probably just watching some of the things that she was doing with (Strength & Conditioning coach) Amanda Kimball and some of the exercises that they put those guys through in September,’’ Auriemma said. “And then watching her on the court doing some individuals with (assistant coach) Shea (Ralph) and watching her play pick-up.
“We put together some clips of her just pushing the ball up the floor, and it looked like everybody else was standing still. That’s how fast she is with the ball when she’s got it going, when she’s healthy. And when she couldn’t do that last year I think we all saw what happened to her confidence level. But that’s not an issue right now. She’s got it back. And she’s a hell of a shooter. People forgot about that too because she shot the ball so poorly last year (39.1 percent). I don’t know that there’s a lot of schools in America that have clutch shooters as good as Bria Hartley.’’