By Carl Adamec
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. — Jennifer Rizzotti was busy leading the New Fairfield High girls basketball team to the first of its back-to-back Class M tournament state championships the last time the University of Connecticut visited Chase Family Arena.
One day shy of 22 years later, the Huskies return and Rizzotti — one of UConn’s brightest stars on the court — will be on the sideline as the coach of the University of Hartford.
The second-ranked Huskies and the Hawks face off Saturday (SNY, 1 p.m.) as the in-state rivals renew their series in front of what should be a capacity crowd.
“It’s nice for our seniors,” Rizzotti said. “They’ve played UConn a few times but not at home. Going to the Civic Center and playing in front of 12,000 is exciting the first time or two but it gets kind of old. They have as chance to play in their own arena and there’s a comfort level at home.
“To have our fans be able to enjoy it … We’ve had some people that have been season ticket holders since I got here. This game is for them. They’ve come to every game whether we blow people out or we lose and they support our team. Now they have a chance to have a front-row seat for UConn and they can’t get that when they go to UConn. It’s a nice opportunity to celebrate the success of our program and the atmosphere we already have here, and to have people come into our gym and see what we’re all about.”
The deal between the schools is for three games, the first being Saturday with the next two hosted by UConn.
Hartford is 3-1 against ranked opponents at home under 14th-year coach Rizzotti with wins over Brigham Young (60-43 on Dec. 2, 2006), Michigan State (54-51 on Dec. 22, 2007), and Louisville (62-50 on Nov. 17, 2009). All were ranked 23rd by the Associated Press and none has ever returned to Chase Family Arena. The loss came just last month to No. 18 St. John’s, 66-54.
UConn (9-0) is the highest-ranked team to ever to play at Hartford.
“It’s really exciting for me because it’s a team that since I was little I heard about, our coach is from that team, so it will be fun,” said Hartford sophomore and leading scorer Amber Bepko, a native of Guilford, Conn. “To be in our house it will be even more exciting because we’ll have our fans and their fans and it will be comfortable us to be home. It’s really cool to play them because they are someone you constantly here about and they are a big team in women’s basketball.
“It’s a big step for our program to have them here. I think a lot of people underestimate us for a Connecticut school because UConn is so big. It shows we’re becoming better and the respect we’re getting.”
In UConn’s last trip to West Hartford on Dec. 23, 1990, the Huskies received 18 points from Wendy Davis and a double-double of 17 points and 12 rebounds from Kerry Bascom in a 57-43 win. UConn, then ranked 24th, led by 23 in the second half only to see Hartford rally within nine with 3:03 left before running out of gas.
Saturday’s contest is the Huskies’ first road game in-state since they went to Fairfield on Dec. 10, 1991.
“It will be a lot of fun,” UConn sophomore Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis said. “It will be an away game but hopefully we’ll have as many fans there as we do at home. The fans will be right on top of us and it will be a great atmosphere.”
Chase Family Arena (capacity 4,017) is among the smaller on-campus venues UConn will play at this season. The only places in the Big East smaller they’ll go are Georgetown’s McDonough Arena and Providence’s Alumni Hall. Marquette’s Al McGuire Center holds about the same 4,000.
“In those gyms the people are right on top of you but I don’t pay attention to the crowd that much,” UConn All-American Bria Hartley said. “When you’re on the court you’re in a zone, at least I am, and you’re just playing basketball.”
The Huskies are coming off Wednesday night’s 97-25 rout of Oakland at the XL Center in Hartford as Hartley had a season high of 21 points and Breanna Stewart added a double-double (21 points, 13 rebounds).
Hartford (8-2) hasn’t played since beating Quinnipiac 67-61 at home Sunday. Rizzotti was happy to have a week to prepare for her alma mater.
“It’s actually nice. I’m not going to lie,” she said. “There’s a lot more stress preparing for Quinnipiac than preparing for UConn because we can focus on us. Yeah, we’re going to go over their plays. We always do. I’m not going to prepare any different. But there are just different goals that we’re going to be able to set in terms of what we’re trying to give up, what we’re trying to get better at, how we’re trying to run things offensively.
“The pressure is off because it’s not a must-win game. A game like this (Quinnipiac), I feel it’s a must-win game. We can’t lose a game like this. But for UConn it’s like, ‘Let’s get better this week in practice and then enjoy ourselves and see what we can get done.’ For a coach that’s always thinking about the next game and always preparing for the next opponent, it’s a little bit of a relief to have a week where I can focus on my team. I’m not sure what we do this week is going to show against UConn, but hopefully it will show the game after that and the games in January which is what we’re really trying to get ready for.”
The Hawks are led by Connecticut natives Bepko, senior Daphne Elliott (Fairfield), and senior Nikkia Smith (Montville) along with senior Ruthanne Doherty.
Hartford is 0-12 against UConn all-time, 0-7 under Rizzotti. UConn coach Geno Auriemma has never lost a game against a team that had one of his former players or assistant coaches as a head or assistant coach.
UConn will be without injured reserves Kiah Stokes (right shin) and Morgan Tuck (right knee) for the second straight game, though Tuck did take part in practice Thursday.
After the game, the Huskies will return to their respective homes for a short Christmas break before reuniting in California Wednesday. They take on No. 1 Stanford at Maples Pavilion Dec. 29.
For Mosqueda-Lewis, that means a cross-country flight Saturday night back to her native Anaheim Hills, Calif. While she’s looking forward to seeing her family, she won’t look past the Hawks.
“I’d like to leave on a good note and not worry about getting my butt kicked when we get back to practice,” Mosqueda-Lewis said with a smile.
There’s no place like home.