For the first time since Sue Bird, Swin Cash, Tamika Williams, Ashja Jones and Keirsten Walters were freshman in 1998, Connecticut Huskies coach Geno Auriemma has not only relied heavily on freshman but, more particularly, freshmen in primary positions.
Auriemma enters today’s game with arguably the two most important spots on the floor - the center and point guard position - covered by two student-athletes who have a combined 6 games of tournament experience and a whopping 180 minutes played in their career.
So it’s easy to see why Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma is not having his staff plan a ticker tape parade just quite yet.
Gone are Renee Montgomery, Caroline Doty and Tina Charles. Standing in their place are 6’5" freshman center Stefanie Dolson and 5’7" freshman guard Bria Hartley. Not exactly chopped liver but they are not currently to the level of their most recent predecessors.
Yet they are working on it.
Bria Hartley entered the post season on the verge of becoming the first player since Jennifer Rizzotti to collect more turnovers than assists her freshman year. Hartley is now sitting comfortably at 101 assists and 94 turnovers. But this season has not always been easy for the Babylon, NY native.
It’s easy to look at Bria Hartley’s resume and expect greatness. She has done it all from a high school, AAU and USA Basketball perspective. She has the demeanor and skill set to be the next dominant UConn guard. Her stroke is silky smooth. Her confidence is rock solid. Her decision making skills are where the biggest opportunity for growth exists.
"Sometimes we forget that Bria is only a freshman and she doesn't quite know yet what to do and when to do it," Auriemma said. "She does know how to make [shots], and I feel like when the pressure is on, players revert back to what they know best."
Hartley has made it a point to be a consistent scorer for this team. Her knack for hitting big shots has been admired all season. Whether it was her second game of the year against Baylor and she is hitting a 3 to take the lead or dropping 29 on Notre Dame or any of her 3’s against Georgetown, she understands when it is her time.
"Confidence," Hartley said. "Even shots that I miss I think they are going in. You have to stay confident throughout the game. I might be missing shots the whole game but I have the confidence that when the game is on the line I have the confidence to hit big shots. I always hit shots like that."
Auriemma has maintained that Hartley doesn’t look for her shot enough and that when she does she is as deadly as Taurasi.
"So she doesn't know yet attack the basket, should I not, should I bring this back out and hit someone for a three, how can I control the tempo, how can I avoid this pressure she doesn't know that yet," Auriemma said. "When she does know, after she turns it over 5 times and throws the ball to everyone but the people she supposed to throw it to, when it's all said in done, when you put in the position to make a shot, I know she's going to make it. I can't tell you how many times in a timeout we do stuff to make sure she gets the next shot, because I know it's going in. So I can't make her do something she's not ready to do yet. Sometimes it comes down to the people around you.
"Bria is a great, great guard ‐ when Tiffany is playing well and Kelly is making shots. So when they are struggling, Bria can't do anything about that, that's not who she is right now. Sometimes it has a lot to do with the people around you."
Surrounding Bria is the steadying influence of Maya Moore but also fellow freshman Stefanie Dolson.
Dolson’s season has been well documented as the kid who was afraid of her own shadow in the Baylor game to a kid who is now a viable candidate for the top center in the Big East.
She has done everything that was asked of her and more and when that meant going to the bench Sunday to allow her team to approach Georgetown’s pressure a different way, Dolson was the loudest one cheering.
"I was just as excited when I was in the game as I was when I was out," Dolson said. "Lorin Dixon went in and it was a complete game‐changer. To me it didn’t matter. Whatever worked, worked. It was all five of them out there. I think one thing I noticed was when all the guards really started to spread the defense out—it opened up completely. They did a great job, so for me to not be in the game doesn’t mean that I’m not a part of it.
"Something like that is definitely going to push me to get better and improve my game. At the same time, that’s her opinion, but I thought I worked hard. But, for me it’s about playing my game and focusing on improvement."
Dolson’s improvement has mostly been on the offensive side of the ball but her rebounding has to improved in order for her to be talked about in the upper echelon of centers. Her hands are too soft with the ball at times and it allows defenders to steal the ball from her. A mean streak for the nice kid who sings and makes up silly little songs for the media would be a welcome edge.
If Dolson can develop that killer instinct and if Hartley can show that she has the ability to make critical decisions for her team when they need to, this team has the ability to advance to the Final Four and beyond even if they are just freshman.
Standing in their way is a weary Duke Blue Devils team.
Forgive Duke if they are tired of talking about Connecticut. Yes, they lost by 36 points. Yes, they failed to show a will to compete. Yes, they failed to punch back according to Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie. But all of that is in the past, according to them. Duke was 20-0 heading into that game and the #3 team in the country. They were ripped apart by ESPN commentators and their own coach about their reluctance to respond with anything that UConn was throwing at them.
When McCallie was questioned about when it was that Duke learned to punch back and turnaround from the less than stellar performance in Round 1 with UConn, McCallie had finally lost her patience with the line of questioning.
"We were 20-0 when we went to UConn and we had five freshmen," McCallie said. "There was no turnaround to this season. We've had a heck of a season that we still want to grow. We beat Kentucky, we beat Texas A&M, we beat Xavier, we beat many good teams. Connecticut was a little bit of a comeuppance, part of the learning curve.
"But our season has been one of power, incredible power that has continued by winning the ACC regular-season and tournament titles. I can't talk about a turnaround. There has been no turnaround. There has been nothing but power and excitement and improving."
Okay coach, let’s talk about that improvement.
Their next game after that drubbing was a game against Miami where they managed to put together an almost complete game and won 82-58 despite receiving only 6 points from leading scorer Jasmine Thomas.
After beating Miami, Duke lost to North Carolina in the next game and 10 days later lost by 22 to Maryland. The Blue Devils barely escaped with a win over Marist in the second round of the NCAA tournament before holding off a late surge by DePaul to advance to today’s rematch with UConn.
There's no question that Duke has improved as that is typically what happens during the season. But every team improves. Connecticut was still learning to play without transfer Samarie Walker and finding their identity.
The question remains on what has changed with Duke to allow them the ability to ‘punch back’ this time?
Duke does routinely go 11 players deep and Connecticut’s short bench has been well chronicled. The issue is that with playing so many people Duke has a hard time maintaining any sense of offensive flow and that has led to their less than impressive numbers on the offensive end. Their Sahara-type droughts on the offensive end have been their Achilles heal with every loss this season, in addition to their come from behind victory over Marist in the 2nd round.
"I don’t really have anything else to say about that," McCallie said. "We got thumped. We moved on and then beat the next team by . From there we got better and better and better."
Today we’ll see how much better they have gotten and how much that victory over Miami actually did.