By Carl Adamec
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — Bria Hartley stood stoically as the University of Hartford honored the 26 victims of the Dec. 14 shooting at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School prior to the start of Saturday’s women’s basketball game between the University of Connecticut and Hartford.
Next to the Huskies’ All-American was a young girl, perhaps in fourth grade, holding a green and white sign that read “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.” She is a student at Sandy Hook and part of the contingent from the Newtown Youth Basketball Association that stood with players from both teams through the emotional ceremony.
After the ensuing national anthem, the players from both teams shook hands and headed back to the Newtown kids. The young girl next to Hartley gave her a hug and her sign. Both were near tears.
“She didn’t say anything to me but I gave her a hug and thanked her for coming to the game,” Hartley said.
As Hartley left Chase Family Arena after the second-ranked Huskies’ 102-45 win over Hartford, she carried two teddy bears given to her by the Newtown kids. The sign was in her backpack and it will find a prominent place in her apartment when she gets back on campus.
“It meant a lot, the sign, the teddy bears after the game, just to be able to play for them …,” Hartley said. “A lot of these kids, we know they look up to us and they like watching us. So we wanted to put on the kind of performance that they’ll enjoy and maybe someday their dream of playing basketball at a place like Connecticut will come true.”
Saturday’s game was No. 943 at UConn for Hall of Fame coach Geno Auriemma. He called it one of the more emotional pregames that he’s ever been involved in. There was a moment of silence that lasted through the ringing of a bell, which was done 26 times.
As he headed to the bench, a Sandy Hook student handed him a note for him and his coaching staff.
“She wrote about how she was a student at the school and she was there when it happened,” Auriemma said. “She thanked us for everything and said how she was looking forward to being at the game today. It was our first contact with the kids that were actually a part of it.
“The moment of silence was deafening.”
He wouldn’t be silent afterwards, though, joining coaches such as Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim and Louisville’s Rick Pitino that have spoken out after the tragedy.
“I’m just poor little boy from Italy,” Auriemma said. “But I know one thing, little kids in Italy aren’t afraid to walk up and down the streets because they’re going to get shot. Little kids in Italy don’t have to worry about somebody going into a school and shooting them. They don’t have to worry about going shopping at the mall and somebody coming in and shooting them. Nor do little kids in Germany nor do little kids in France. Most civilized countries in the world, they don’t worry about that stuff. So why in this country do we have to be afraid for our children? And why do I have to be afraid for my grandson is beyond me. I can’t figure it out and no one will ever convince me that it’s OK.
“And now we’re going to put armed guards in every school. And that everybody’s entitled to protect their house. And I love the other thing they say is we have to protect ourselves because the police can’t. We need those guns because we have to protect ourselves because the police can’t. You know why the police can’t protect us? There’s more people with guns than there are policemen. What other country do you think that exists? Seriously. That’s the craziest thing.
“And I grew up here. And my kids grew up here. And I have a great life, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But if there aren’t some major changes made in the way we live I would tell my daughter and my grandson, ‘You know what? You need to move to another country. You’ve got a better chance of growing up safe.’ That’s bull—-.”
For Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti, the tragedy hits home.
The former UConn All-American and Wade Trophy winner graduated from New Fairfield High, maybe a 15-20 minute drive from Newtown. She has a 7-year-old son Holden and a 4-year-old son Conor.
“It’s tough. It’s an example of how it doesn’t go away,” Rizzotti said. “It’s not something people can get past right now and not think about all the time. We wanted to honor to them. We had a chance to get those girls from Newtown here and for them to be part of our ceremony and be here for the UConn game was special. It reminds us what we really matters in life. That we could take a break from it for a couple of hours …
“It’s hard not to think about that and to have to talk to my second grader about what happened. It’s something that I cry about probably every day since it happened. It doesn’t go away easily. I don’t know if our players can feel the same way that a parent does but they do feel. They were kids once so they know how tough this is. It doesn’t mean you stop living your life but you have to take that moment to reflect on what matters the most.”
The Huskies placed five players in double figures Saturday. After waiting 22 years to get UConn back to the Chase Family Arena, the Hawks gave up a school-record point total.
As time goes on, though, the score will be forgotten. What 3,508 fans along with the players and coaches from both teams will never forget was the way Sandy Hook Elementary School was remembered.
“This was extremely difficult,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “This is going to be an incredibly long journey for them and none of us can possibly imagine what those kids, those families, those relatives, their friends, are going through. I continually think of them and pray for them and if there’s anything we can do I hope that it’s brought up to us.”
For two hours Saturday, UConn and Hartford could not have done more.