By Carl Adamec
STORRS, Conn. — Bria Hartley is valuing every minute she has left with the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
If the Huskies and their senior guard have their way, that’s 600 minutes with the countdown starting again with this Sunday’s American Athletic Conference game against South Florida at the Sun Dome in Tampa.
Hartley can rest in two months. Why wouldn’t she want to spend as many of those remaining minutes as she can on the court?
“Playing 40 minutes? I don’t think it’s anything bad for all,” Hartley said. “My sophomore year it seemed like I played 40 minutes a majority of the time. I don’t mind it. I’m sure Moriah (Jefferson) doesn’t mind it either. We’re all in really good shape and work really hard.
“Part of being a competitor is going out there and you have to be prepared to play 40 minutes every game. You might be tired. If we had only five players, Coach would use his time outs to help us out a little bit. You have to be ready for that and in tournament time you have to step up and be ready for anything.”
Hartley played 33 minutes — sitting out the final 7:15 of the first half with two fouls — in No. 1 UConn’s 81-64 AAC win over fourth-ranked Louisville at Gampel Pavilion Sunday. Jefferson went the whole 40 while Stefanie Dolson went 39 minutes and Breanna Stewart 37. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis played the first 19:42 before coming out with a left elbow injury.
UConn (25-0 overall, 12-0 AAC) had only seven scholarship players available with Morgan Tuck out for the season after right knee surgery and Brianna Banks missing her second straight game with a sprained left ankle. When Mosqueda-Lewis went out, the Huskies had issues.
“We’ve been there ever since Morgan Tuck had her surgery,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’ve been there right from that day, right from when that was decision was made. That put us in a really tough spot because now all you need is one more. You don’t have Brianna Banks so we are there. Short of playing with four players, I mean, there is nothing else that would need to happen to put us in that danger zone. We can’t afford a sprained ankle. We can’t afford three fouls in the first half. We can’t afford somebody getting the flu. Everything has to go right from this point on.
“It’s not easy to deal with it right now, but I’m not sure anyone is going to have a telethon for us and send us a couple players when we need them. It is what it is. This is who we have, and we have to try to manage it as best we can. But this isn’t going to be easy these next two months.”
A year after reaching the 2009 national championship game, Louisville coach Jeff Walz was starting a walk-on freshman point guard in Shelby Harper as his team battled through an injury-plagued season.
“I’m not sure how well Geno would do if he had a walk-on that had to start the entire conference season,” Walz said. “It must just be awful to have to play Stewart 37 minutes. I have no idea how he sleeps at night. I mean, going home tonight and going, ‘I had to play Jefferson 40 minutes and Dolson 39,’ I probably wouldn’t eat. Look who you’re playing?”
UConn’s starting five accounted for all but two points against the Cardinals (23-2, 11-1). All five starters scored in double figures for the second straight game and all are averaging double figures for the season.
Stewart finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. She was named the AAC Player of the Week for the third time this season Monday.
“I think that we have enough,” Stewart said. “Obviously, you don’t want to have to play with six players. But if you have to you will just because you know that the end result is winning a national championship. We knew we were going to have a short bench and we just have to be smarter.”
Stewart, Dolson, and Hartley each finished with four fouls, but all got there after the outcome had been decided. UConn leads the nation in being called for the fewest fouls per game (12.2).
The Huskies also lead the nation in scoring defense. On Sunday, with Jefferson leading the way, they held Louisville All-American candidate Shoni Schimmel to nine points on 4-for-15 shooting.
“They’re the greatest team in the country right now,” Schimmel said. “And then they have the one through seven that just come out there and anybody can score. They’re a hard team to guard and they do what they do best and that’s score.”
The Huskies lead the Cardinals by one game in the league race and barring a major upset the regular season finale at the KFC Yum! Center in Louisville March 3 will determine whether UConn wins the title outright or is forced to share with the Cardinals.
UConn defeated its next five opponents — South Florida, Central Florida, Houston, SMU, and Rutgers — by an average of 39.2 points in the first meetings. Louisville beat its next five opponents — Temple, Memphis, Houston, Rutgers, and Cincinnati — by an average of 21.0 points in the first meetings.
How short-handed the Huskies will be by the time they face USF remains to be seen.
To Hartley, it doesn’t matter.
“You need five,” she said, “that’s all you ever need.”
She just wants to be one of them.