Hartley returns to form for Huskies

STORRS, Conn. -- One All-American missing in spirit if not in body a season ago made clear Monday that she is back. With another All-American's immediate future shrouded in doubt, the revelation comes none too soon for Connecticut.

Bria Hartley is back. Time will tell how long it will be until the same can be said of Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis.

Paced by 20 points, eight rebounds, six assists and two steals from Hartley and a big night from its bench, No. 1 Connecticut beat third-ranked Stanford 76-57. That the mood was less than jubilant after a convincing win against a team expected to be a championship rival was the result of a play early in the second half in which Mosqueda-Lewis went up for a rebound, lost her balance and fell as she contacted Chiney Ogwumike. Mosqueda-Lewis landed awkwardly, with her right hand and elbow making first contact with the court.

Tests on Tuesday will reveal the severity and nature of the injury. Neither Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma nor players were able to shed light on that after the game. But her cries in the moment made the pain all too clear in a silent arena.

Without Mosqueda-Lewis down the stretch, and with Breanna Stewart limited to four minutes and no points in the first half after she picked up two early fouls, the Huskies played essentially the entire game without at least one of the their two preseason national player-of-the-year candidates on the court. They did so with the competition for that honor, Stanford's Chiney Ogwumike, entrenched in the low post for the other team.

The player of the night made their absences moot.

"She looked like she did two years ago," Auriemma said of Hartley. "She was trying to attack the defense every chance she got. When Bria is playing like that, she's one of the best players in the country. She lost a little bit of that last year."

As Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer noted, Connecticut has four All-Americans on its roster. The only catch is that's true in the present tense only for Mosqueda-Lewis, Stewart and Stefanie Dolson, all of whom earned either first- or second-team national honors this preseason. Hartley is the fourth member of the club, but that dates back to her sophomore campaign. She is coming off a junior season in which she earned only an honorable mention nod -- for all-conference honors, not as an All-American.

Slowed by an ankle injury early last season, she never found a groove and finished the season shooting 39.1 percent from the field and 29.7 percent from the 3-point line, well off her career averages. Her shot and her game too often looked flat. She presumably wouldn't trade the end result, another national championship, but there was a level of personal frustration that festered throughout the season.

"I kind of don't want to talk about it because I don't want to bring it back," Hartley joked Monday night. "But it was frustrating at times, especially because I know my potential, and I know what I could do on the court. I've always been confident in myself, and I felt like last year, my confidence wavered a little bit. I've never been that type of person, so I think I let that get to me and then mentally it just made it that much tougher.

"But I'm not going to let that happen this year."

She wasn't just the best player on the court for much of the game Monday night, she helped make other players better. Freshman Saniya Chong deserved full credit for coming off the bench early in the first half and hitting back-to-back 3-pointers to break an early shooting funk for the Huskies. But it's worth noting it was Hartley who put the ball in her hands on both occasions, just as it was Hartley who rewarded Dolson for sprinting the court on a break by finding her for a layup. She then executed the play Auriemma called in the closing seconds of the half to find Mosqueda-Lewis for a 3-pointer.

Stanford did its best to make the night about both teams. Through much of the first half, the Cardinal held off the run that almost inevitably comes when Connecticut plays at home. Ogwumike played her typically relentless game down low and Amber Orrange followed up a big game two days earlier against Boston College with an outstanding performance in decidedly more difficult surroundings. But slowly the lead grew, from two points with a little more than nine minutes remaining in the first half to 13 points at the break and 24 points midway through the second half.

"I think this kind of let our team know we're 20 points away," VanDerveer said.

She sounded confident her team, which has plenty of youth to go with plenty of talent, could make up that difference eventually, but it's remarkable to think about that admission given the respective rankings.

Auriemma said after the fact that he didn't know if the Huskies would have won the game without Stokes, who Auriemma added had the best performance (10 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks) of her two-plus seasons with the program. Whether she was really worth 20 points in the final accounting, she was valuable. So was Chong. But it helps to have All-Americans, even ones who went missing.

By the end of her sophomore season, Hartley's contributions were a given. The Huskies would like to again take them for granted.

By the time the second half began, Hartley had played 42 minutes on the season without committing a turnover (she scored 17 points and had seven assists in that same stretch). That streak continued until the 13:43 mark of the second half, when Hartley drove the right side in transition and tried to make a behind-the-back pass. That she tried to make it at all instead of carrying on to the basket drove Auriemma to vocal distraction. That she tried to make it to Dolson, whom Auriemma suggested might not be the best bet to handle such a pass at full sprint, drew plenty of postgame sarcasm from him.

All of 15 seconds after the miscue, Hartley came up with a steal and raced to the other end. She went directly to the basket this time.

At the next timeout, Auriemma pulled her aside as she walked to the bench and offered what appeared to be a few words at entirely conversational volume. Then he patted her on the back three times and made his way to the huddle. She finished the game with just that lone turnover.

In not so many words, her coach said after the game that the next great player he meets who isn't stubborn will be the first. But the excess stubbornness that marked her early years is gone.

"Right now, she's at a place where she doesn't mind you challenging her, and she doesn't mind you putting pressure on her," Auriemma said. "She's looking forward to it, as a matter of a fact, because she's a senior and that's kind of what you're supposed to do. Earlier on, you try to coach her and you try to really get after her about some things, and she really just didn't take it very well. But she's grown up a lot. When you're a senior you're supposed to be as easy to coach as anybody could ever imagine. Right now, she's in a great place physically and mentally.

"I can talk to her now like a normal person, which wasn't always the case for a couple of years."

A return to form for Hartley seemed like something of a luxury entering this season. The Huskies will hope she remains one of four All-Americans when the news comes back on Mosqueda-Lewis.

But make no mistake, she is an All-American.