First-round NCAA tournament games can be a few things for the Connecticut Huskies. Mysterious is not one of them. As a No. 1 seed from 2007 to 2012, UConn's average margin of victory against No. 16 seeds was 43 points. So Saturday’s 105-37 drubbing of Idaho was expected.
When Geno Auriemma woke up on his 59th birthday Saturday, the Vandals couldn't have been a major concern. But if the Huskies coach was looking for a few gifts from his team, he got them.
The Huskies went right after Idaho. Bria Hartley had a layup within four seconds of the opening tip. On the other end of the floor, there was a Stefanie Dolson block and then a Hartley steal and layup all inside the first minute. The score was 12-0 by the first media timeout, and the result was in.
But this one was more about the art than the science for the Huskies.
UConn didn’t merely rely on its enormously greater physical ability. The Huskies outhustled Idaho -- getting to more loose balls, rebounding with conviction on the offensive end -- from the first whistle. Auriemma wants execution at all times for this team to function the right way, even if the opponent is woefully inferior. Doing things the right way on days like Saturday becomes a habit when the opponents’ talent level gets significantly better as the tourney progresses.
The veteran coach got that early Saturday afternoon in Storrs. All the pregame talk of having to shift the starting lineup because of the absence of freshman Breanna Stewart (minor left calf injury) was just that -- talk. It was a meaningless footnote in a game like this because the Huskies never let the Vandals breathe and never took the foot off the gas.
Hartley's focus and aggressiveness set the tone early, and that had to be a welcome sight for Auriemma. The junior point guard seemed to lose confidence late in the season. Her turnover issues directly affected the Huskies' inability to beat either Notre Dame or Baylor (Hartley averaged nearly five turnovers in UConn's four losses).
On Saturday, Hartley attacked, made three of her first four 3-pointers, played 32 minutes and turned over the ball just twice. The Huskies can get to a sixth straight Final Four with Hartley just being average. They can’t win an eighth title unless she is very good, if not great. Saturday might have been a big step toward Hartley's getting there again.