By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. That was the tale of Bria Hartley’s junior year with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
Coming off an All-American sophomore season, Hartley was ready to secure her spot among the nation’s elite guards. But a left ankle injury first suffered in the FIBA 3×3 world championships in late August eventually cost Hartley much of the preseason and the first two regular season games. And while there were flashes of brilliance, she struggled with the ankle and her confidence. She averaged a career-low in points and her shooting percentages were her worst in three seasons.
But (with further apologies to Charles Dickens) while it was the winter of despair, it was the spring of hope. Hartley found her game during the NCAA tournament and was named to the all-Final Four team as the Huskies captured their eighth national championship.
After a strong summer that saw her help the United States to a gold medal at the World University Games, Hartley is happy and healthy and ready to go in her final go-around at UConn.
“This year is going to be a great year,” Hartley said. “When you’re a senior you want to go out on top and have your best year. That’s important to me. We want to make sure, as a team, we’re better. I don’t want us to go through the inconsistencies we had last year. We’re a year more experienced and we won a national championship so we know what it takes. The only person without that experience is Saniya Chong but we can guide her and help show her the way.
“Not many players can say they won a national championship. I know a lot of Connecticut players can say they have. It’s something you can’t take away and winning one is great. Now we want to go out there and win another one.”
Having Hartley play at a high level would go a long way towards a successful title defense.
In 2012, the 5-foot-7 native of North Babylon, N.Y., became the fourth UConn sophomore (Svetlana Abrosimova, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore) to be named an All-American and the third (Abrosimova and Moore) to reach 1,000 career points. But a season ago, her scoring dropped to 9.2 points per game and she shot just 39.1 percent from the floor including 29.7 percent from 3-point land. Twelve months after being chosen to the 10-player WBCA All-America team, she was not among the 22 players who were voted to the Big East first and second teams.
And when she did well, she had to hear how the “Old Bria” was back.
“I didn’t want to hear that,” Hartley said. “That was always to me kind of annoying — ‘Old Bria. Old Bria. Old Bria.’ All right. I just thought it put a negative connotation on things sometimes. It’s like I was two different people. It was still me. I was still the same person and same player but you go through some struggles sometimes.
“Everything that happened last year happened for a reason and you grow from that. It helped me as a player and as a person. I think that showed up for me late in the season when I was able to string together some good games.”
After UConn’s third loss of the season to Notre Dame in the Big East tournament final, Hartley volunteered to come off the bench for the NCAA tournament. She provided the spark that UConn coach Geno Auriemma looks for from his sixth man and it helped get the Huskies over the top at the Final Four in New Orleans.
In the national semifinals, she had 15 points, five rebounds, two assists, and four steals as UConn pounded Notre Dame 83-65. In the championship game against Louisville, her jumper followed by a steal and layup started a 19-0 run that erased an early four-point deficit. She finished with 13 points, two rebounds, four assists, and three steals as the Huskies coasted past the Cardinals 93-60. She joined teammates Breanna Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Kelly Faris on the all-Final Four team.
“It was exciting to be part of a national championship team and everything that happened afterwards was so cool,” Hartley said. “It was great to be able to enjoy that stuff. I know when we play our first game this year and we’re able to put the banner up, that will be exciting too.”
The most exciting moment of her summer came in July at the World University Games in Kazan, Russia. She led the Americans in scoring at 13.5 points per game on 48.3 percent shooting from the floor and 40.9 percent from behind the arc. She jumped her average to 16.0 points in the final three elimination games.
“Going to Russia was cool,” Hartley said. “Winning a gold medal was really cool. And I was really excited about the way that I played. Last season wasn’t my best season so it was good to be back into it and I think it really helped build my confidence. Being one of the more experienced players on that USA team put me in a leadership role that I enjoyed.”
Team USA coasted into the semifinals and then survived a huge comeback by Australia to capture a 78-77 win.
In the gold-medal game against the host country, Hartley had 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the floor as Team USA routed Russia 90-71 before a partisan sellout crowd of 4,000.
“There weren’t a lot of fans cheering for us,” Hartley said with a laugh. “But we had scrimmaged them when we first got there and, not to make excuses, we lost. So going into that game we had something to prove to them. They were a good team but we knew that we were more talented. We knew if we played well we would beat them by good margin. Our game plan was to push the ball because they were a big team and they would get tired and it worked.”
It was Hartley’s fourth gold medal playing USA Basketball. She also won titles at the 2010 FIBA Americas tournament, the 2011 FIBA U-19 world championships, and the 2012 FIBA 3×3 world championships.
“Playing for UConn is something that I take a lot of pride in,” Hartley said. “Playing for your country, though, is a step above. It’s showing people where you’re from and how you do things. To win four gold medals with USA Basketball says a lot about the teams I played on and the talent we had.”
And, now, Hartley is a senior. The fall semester started Monday. Preseason workouts are beginning and the annual First Night festivities that kick off the start of practice are in mid-October.
The regular season opener is Nov. 9 against the University of Hartford.
“I don’t know how I feel yet about being a senior,” Hartley said. “It’s cool to be one of the older players and you know a lot more than you did as a freshman and it’s great to have that experience. But you’re going to miss everything and you look at it all like, ‘This is my last time …’ It’s bittersweet.
“You have to take it day by day. You can’t look ahead. You stay in the moment that you’re in. It’s your last year and you want to do everything you can to make the most of it.”
Hartley, a communications major, is scheduled to graduate on time next May. She would like to have a career in broadcasting but would also like to put that off for awhile to have a career in professional basketball.
But before all that she’d like to capture a second NCAA title.
For Hartley, that would be a storybook ending.