Hunter, Houston come up big in Huskies' first-round win

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Brittany Hunter's reconstructed right knee isn't ever going to allow her to develop into the superstar many envisioned she'd be when she came out of high school.

She has had to make peace with that. When was she able to do it?

"Probably the end of last season," Hunter said. "I was saying it to myself before that, but I don't think I really bought into it. I was still trying to do stuff like take off from the foul line for a layup, or trying to rebound over five people.

"I had to change things and be more tactical. I had to pay attention to detail more. In some ways, I think it made my game that much better. It feels really good now -- like everything's coming full circle.

Hunter, of course, spent her first season at Duke before following her heart and going to Connecticut.

Now here she is, a senior for a top-seeded Huskies team that is gunning for another national championship. UConn looked great -- really clicking on all cylinders -- in its 89-47 first-round victory over Cornell here Sunday night.

These types of early-round games can sometimes be deceiving -- such as when the favorite wins big, but doesn't play particularly well. That wasn't the case with UConn, though. Coach Geno Auriemma was very clearly pleased -- and how often is that the case? -- with the all-business mentality his Huskies showed. Freshman sensation Maya Moore led four Huskies in double figures with 17 points.

"I thought we were in a great frame of mind," Auriemma said. "I wanted to see us play with a lot of energy and come out where our defense was going to dictate what happened in this game. And I thought we did that."

And you could tell he was also happy for Hunter, as well as fellow senior Charde Houston. Both started their final NCAA tournament as true contributors, and that's a neat thing to see.

"When you're a senior and you've been in the NCAA tournament as many times as they have, I don't think they're as anxious or hyper maybe," Auriemma said.

He changed his starting lineup for Sunday's game -- sophomore Tina Charles came off the bench for the first time this season -- in large part because he wanted to give Hunter a boost.

"I wanted to get her back into the mix," he said. "Today, for the first time in about a month or maybe more, she actually played about her limit -- 13 or 14 minutes. If I don't start her, I don't think I would be able to do that. So we accomplished that goal."

Hunter had started 19 previous games this season, but had not been in the starting lineup since the Huskies' Feb. 20 game against Marquette.

"It feels good anytime he tells a player, 'Look, you stunk for the last month, but I know for a fact that you can play better,'" Hunter said. "I was kind of shocked when he said, 'I'm going to start you to make you feel better and make the team better.' That just brought my confidence up. I had to hold up my end of the deal."

She did that, making 5 of 6 shots from the field for 11 points. She also had three rebounds in her 13 minutes of action.

Coach Gail Goestenkors, whose Texas team beat Minnesota on Sunday and will face UConn on Tuesday (ESPN2, 9 p.m. ET), is pleased for Hunter that things have worked out. She coached Hunter her freshman season at Duke.

"I think she's battled that her entire career," Goestenkors said of Hunter's knee problems. "I saw her [Saturday] when we were coming to practice, and I said it seems like she's been in college now for about 20 years. I'm very happy for her that she's out there playing. She's doing a great job for them when she's healthy and able to play."

As for Houston, we trust if you've watched any UConn women's basketball in recent years, you are aware of her many trials with her own psyche and Auriemma's doghouse. If you're a newbie to the sport, trust us: We couldn't possibly do that soap opera justice here.

Suffice to say, I can't think of another player for a major program whose status has been more all over the map on practically a weekly basis ever since she arrived at UConn. I'm not sure how either she or Auriemma has survived it.

Maybe because of nights like Sunday, when Houston came off the bench for 14 points, four assists and three rebounds.

"Charde's been playing great ever since the DePaul game [March 1]," Auriemma said. "I think she's been really good, and tonight she looked like a Charde that you rarely see: under control, making the right plays at the right time."

Indeed, Houston appeared confident, in sync on defense and completely dependable.

"It feels good," Houston said. "Just having Coach be able to look down [the bench] and say, 'Sub for so-and-so.' As opposed to the past where he's looking, but it was kind of iffy. Like, 'Is she going to play good? What is she going to give us today?'"

Auriemma said that Houston didn't appear to have much "floating around in her head" before this game, and that is a compliment. What he means is, she wasn't in "Charde World" -- that place where no one can quite figure out (not even Houston herself) what's going on in her mind.

"It's about me playing the game -- when I think too much, you can tell," Houston said. "Everything I am doing, they are things I've been capable of doing."

Teammate Renee Montgomery grinned when told of Auriemma's comment about Houston, and said that she could tell before the game that Houston was locked in.

"These past 12 days in practice, it seemed like she didn't have any worries," Montgomery said. "Everything she did, she did it all the way. She wasn't second-guessing herself. That showed in the game."

Houston played very well in the Big East tournament, too. She said her performance Sunday was indicative of the fact that she has prepared well for NCAA play.

"I always ask myself, 'Did I prepare accordingly?'" Houston said. She added that the answer for past NCAA tournaments was no.

"That's what it is about," she said. "Before I set foot here [in Bridgeport], I made sure I put together my best days of practice so my effort wouldn't be questionable."

With everything else that UConn has, having Hunter and Houston producing like this made for a very happy 54th birthday for Auriemma. And it will be a happy tournament for Huskies Nation if they keep it up.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.