UConn’s Hartley in a New York state of mind

By Carl Adamec

STORRS, Conn. — Bria Hartley had the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team’s 100th straight home win in her hands.

Shenneika Smith’s 3-pointer had given St. John’s a one-point lead with 8.1 seconds left last Feb. 18 at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies opted not to use a time out and raced down the court and Hartley found herself open in the corner near the UConn bench. She got the ball and lined up the game-winning try.

The No. 1 reason that Hartley was a WBCA All-American as a sophomore was her ability to play big in big games and make big shots. But this bid came up just short as it hit the rim and bounced away. St. John’s celebrated a 57-56 victory that was its first over the Huskies since 1993 when Hartley was three months old and the St. John’s women’s team was known as the Express. It also ended UConn’s NCAA record 99-game home winning streak.

“Initially when it happens you’re pretty upset about it,” Hartley said Thursday. “You make so many shots in your career but that’s one that you really want to make. As time passes you don’t dwell on it simply because there’s nothing that you can do about it. You can’t go back and replay it or go back and take that shot again. You move forward and worry about making the next shot or next play in the next game and doing what you need to do to help the team win.”

UConn did get another shot at St. John’s two weeks later in the Big East tournament semifinals and routed the Red Storm 74-43. On Saturday, the third-ranked Huskies travel to Jamaica, N.Y. for a Big East contest with St. John’s at Carnesecca Arena (2 p.m., SNY).

Hartley, a native of North Babylon, N.Y., expects at least 25 family members and friends to make the trip to Queens for her first collegiate game on the St. John’s campus. The teams played at Madison Square Garden two years ago. UConn (19-1 overall, 6-1 Big East) will try to clinch its 20th straight 20-win season. St. John’s (10-9, 4-3) is coming off Wednesday’s 65-51 win at Providence but has been inconsistent all season and needs a strong February in order to get back to the NCAA tournament.

The Huskies have dominated the series with the Red Storm, winning 28 of the last 29 for a 38-17 overall lead. That one loss has stuck with Hartley, and not just because it was Senior Night and it snapped the long home winning streak.

“It hit me hard. I mean, I’m from New York and all those St. John’s players are ones I played with or against growing up all of my life,” Hartley said. “I’ve played against Nadirah McKenith since eighth grade. I played with Eugeneia McPherson in high school. I played AAU with Shenneika Smith. It’s a little rivalry thing you have with your friends. You want to go out there and you want to win. And being at UConn and the history we have, we don’t lose to St. John’s often. To lose that game to them was a little upsetting and very frustrating.”

And, of course, New York players are always humble in victory, gracious, and never ones to let you know what they just did.

“Yeah, all that,” Hartley said with a laugh.

Hartley comes into Saturday’s game averaging just 8.3 points and 3.4 assists as she has struggled all season with a left ankle injury suffered last summer.

But it’s been worse for St. John’s McPherson, Hartley’s teammate at North Babylon High. McPherson tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee at the University of Hartford Nov. 25 and had season-ending surgery. She is eligible for a medical redshirt to regain her final year of eligibility.

“Injuries like that, especially when it’s someone you know, touch a little closer to home,” Hartley said. “She’s a great player and it’s so unfortunate that had to happen. But she’s strong and she’ll come back even stronger.”

The Huskies have won seven straight overall since their loss to Notre Dame on Jan. 5 and need to win to keep pace with the Irish in the Big East race. Saturday’s game is also their first in February, which means the stretch drive has begun.

But at some point before tipoff they’ll be reminded about what happened against St. John’s on their home court a year ago.

“You hate to lose those game late in the season because you know they’re all meaningful,” Hartley said. “We didn’t play as well we should have. But there’s nothing you can do. We’re going to come out Saturday and we’re a different team. We have to execute our game plan, do what the coaches tell us, and just make plays.”