By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team is already at the quarter-pole in its regular season schedule yet in some ways All-American guard Bria Hartley is still at the starting line.
A left ankle injury suffered at the FIBA 3×3 world championships in Athens, Greece, in late August cost Hartley much of the preseason and forced her to miss the first two games of her career to start her junior season. Of the six games she has played, the third sophomore in UConn history to reach the 1,000-point plateau has hit double figures just once.
But the break for fall semester final exams is giving Hartley the opportunity to play catch-up.
Second-ranked UConn (8-0) last played a game Dec. 6 against Penn State and doesn’t take the court again until Wednesday when Oakland (Mich.) visits the XL Center in Hartford (7 p.m., SNY). In between exams, it’s practice, practice, practice.
“It’s good for her,” UConn senior Kelly Faris said. “Bria was thrown right into games. It’s not easy to miss a single of day of practice and come back and she missed a couple of months. You know she’d get behind. Conditioning-wise, she’s fine. But when you’re out of sync a little, it will be good for her to get a bunch of practices under her belt.”
Hartley practiced only twice before making her debut at the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and played three games in three days Nov. 22-24. Her minutes were bumped up over her next three games and there seemed to be no issues with her ankle.
But the comeback trail has had its bumps as she’s struggled to find a rhythm.
“Inconsistent. Up and down,” Hartley said when asked to assess her play in her six games. “But I’ve been working on getting back from injury and now I’ve just got to focus on getting better day by day, little by little. I have to remind myself not to rush into anything.”
The North Babylon, N.Y., native is averaging just 7.5 points on 40.5 percent shooting from the floor, 2.5 rebounds, and 3.3 assist in 21.3 minutes per game. She is hitting just 29.4 percent from 3-point land and 58.8 percent from the foul line. She does rank third in the Big East in assist-to-turnover ratio behind only Faris and DePaul’s Anna Martin.
In her first two seasons, Hartley averaged 13.2 points on 46.6 percent shooting from the floor, 3.8 rebounds, and 3.3 assist with an assist-to-turnover ratio of about 3-to-2.
“Bria just has to keep her confidence up and know what type of player that she is, that she can be, and that she was last year,” UConn center Stefanie Dolson said. “I’ve seen spurts of it here and there, definitely. It is hard coming into practices when you’ve been out for however long that she was. But we’re all here to help her with it.”
So Hartley is using this time off as a mini-training camp. The 13-day break between the games is the longest the Huskies will have during the regular season.
“The main thing I’ve been focusing on is just taking care of the ball and trying to get in some sort of a flow so I can help us run our offense more smoothly,” Hartley said. “Also, I want to work really hard on improving my shot because I feel like I’m not as consistent as I have been the last two years.”
That the Huskies are where they are with four wins over Top 20 teams with Hartley not at her best has to have them feeling good.
But after next week’s games with Oakland and Hartford and a Christmas break, UConn has a showdown with No. 1 Stanford at Maples Pavilion on Dec. 29. When the Huskies return home from their two-game west coast swing, fifth-ranked Notre Dame and All-American point guard Skylar Diggins will be waiting for them at Gampel Pavilion on Jan. 5.
“You can tell Bria’s still not quite there, but I’m not worried about her,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “I know where she’s going to be when it’s all settled.”
As far as where she plays, whether that’s at point guard or more off the ball, doesn’t matter to the Hall of Fame coach.
“The reason why we run a lot of two-guard stuff is because we don’t want to put all the pressure on one guard,” Auriemma said. “Bria knows she has got to get better at distributing the ball and making plays for other people. That’s the kind of stuff that Moriah Jefferson will be able to do down the road but now we’re at that two-guard front and that’s where we’re going to stay.
“We don’t operate with a point guard. That’s not how we play. Bria’s gotten into a bad habit where she just dribbles the ball a little more than she should. Not having the preseason … I didn’t see much of that last year. There was a lot more movement with the ball. But when the time comes she’ll be where we need her to be.”
And Hartley does have time. The national championship isn’t won or lost in December.