There are times in life when we're faced with lessons that are hard to take.
It begins in infancy with a mother trying to teach an infant to try and sooth themselves back to sleep. It continues when they are adolescents and have to learn to solve problems without the help of adults. And then there are the lessons that sometimes that a teacher has to teach a student, as much as you may dislike like them.
So when Hartford popped up as the 16th seed in UConn's bracket on Selection Monday, there were some deep breaths, a few sighs, and then UConn went to work doing what they always do: preparing to dismantle the opposition, even if there was a Connecticut icon perusing the opponent's sideline.
It's easy to look at the final score, 75-39, and say that UConn beat the opponent into oblivion or look at the same score and say that UConn's effort was not as impressive as some of their other #1 seeded counterparts. Yet in reality it wasn't about the game that was played; it's much bigger than that. There is an ongoing relationship there that is bigger than basketball, bigger than the game.
This was a family affair.
This is Connecticut, where Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti's crossover dribble against Tennessee in 1995 is thought of as being in the same realm as Tate George's miracle against Clemson in 1990. Jen was coming home to where it all started after an unlikely and unsettling start to the season. That start led UHart to 17-15 record and a 16th seed in the direct path of her alma mater and the overall #1 seed and the 2-time defending National Champion.
As much as Connecticut Huskies coach, Geno Auriemma is portrayed as the bad boy of women's college basketball there are some things that he is adamantly opposed to and one of those is embarrassing the other team especially if it is one of his own on the sidelines.
"Yeah, believe it or not, I don't like to do it to people I don't like either," Auriemma said. "You're not doing it to [the opposing coaches], it's their kids. I don't like for it to happen to anybody. I have also been on the other side of that while going to Virginia or Vanderbilt when they were better than us. In Jen's case, I just wanted her to come into this building today and have her and her players be really, really proud of themselves after the game, win or lose."
Hartford came in to prove that they are not the ugly step child in a state so obsessed with women's basketball that any news piece is drooled over, the players are treated like royalty wherever they go and their faces are plastered across every television station and billboard within state lines. But the Hawk players are rock stars in their own right. They have their own fan clubs, they out draw their opponents in their own gyms and are adored in their league.
They had no desire to be UConn. They wanted to beat UConn.
"I think the whole novelty of the match-up is just so different for us than it is for everybody else," Rizzotti said. "We just didn't look at it like that. I was there. We didn't look at our first round opponent with any disrespect, but we weren't like looking for storylines either.''
"They're normal people," Hartford forward Ruthanne Doherty said. "They're not invincible. They shoot better. They run the floor hard. They do a lot of things better. We were there with them. We have the heart and determination, but their talent rose over us."
Hartford wasn't just happy to be here. They were thankful for the opportunity that their hard work afforded them after a 1-9 start but they came in, to try and win like any Jen Rizzotti coached team would. They fought hard like they have all season for every inch.
"I'm [ticked] when I lose no matter who it is," Rizzotti said. "I'm a competitor. I'm realistic and I know what our chances are. But it's not easier to lose to UConn other than maybe if we lost to Tennessee. Then it would be easier to lose to UConn."
The first few minutes played out like any game would with teams that have been off for 2 weeks. There was some sloppy play resulting in missed shots and a few turnovers. With the Hartford Hawks only down 5, 5:35 into the game, talent began to separate itself from heart, resulting in UConn outscoring UHart 26-10 for the rest of the half, netting a halftime score of 40-17.
"These games in the first round always take a familiar script, for us anyways," said Auriemma. "We haven't played in so long that we're always unsure of what we're going to get the first 10-15 minutes of the game. And then we know in the first round you're going to play somebody that from a talent standpoint, is going to struggle to handle some of things you're going to do and you know you're going to have to deal with some of the things they're going to do to try and make up for that. Today was certainly no different."
The second half played out as a coach trying not to embarrass one of his former star pupils while getting his players not only the rest but also the repetitions that they will need the rest of the way if they are to play another 5 games in the NCAA tournament.
UConn was balanced with all players playing double figure minutes, minus Heather Buck who is recovering from an ankle injury and saw 7 minutes of action. Her first since she played 10 minutes against Seton Hall on February 22nd. All 9 available Husky players scored and had at least 1 rebound.
Player of the Year candidate, Maya Moore scored 12 points, like 3 of her teammates in Bria Hartley, Tiffany Hayes and Stefanie Dolson. Moore and Dolson also had 7 rebounds and 2 assists. Kelly Faris also reached double figures for the Huskies with 10 points while grabbing 6 rebounds, 3 assists, and 3 steals.
While all of UConn starters were solid, the Player of the Game has to go to Lorin Dixon. Dixon had 7 points, 5 assists and 6 rebounds for the 5-4 guard. Dixon had a subpar Big East Tournament performance so it was critical for UConn to get her into some rhythm with the beginning of the NCAA tournament.
While UConn is not incredibly deep with bodies they are still deep with talent. That talent allowed them to shoot 58.1% in the first half and 49.2% for the game, while holding UHart to 31.5% shooting. Connecticut more than doubled Hartford's rebounding numbers with 47 for the Huskies and 23 for the Hawks.
The great news for Hartford, while they will say farewell to three seniors in Jackie Smith, Mary Silvia and Amanda Weaver, who amassed a 78-33 record during their time in Hartford. These 3 players combined for only 10 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists. In other words Hartford will be back next year, with lots of experience and a mild taste of success. Those thoughts were not lost on Jen Rizzotti, who comes tomorrow with season exit interviews is going to have some tough love for her team.
"Being a No. 16 seed is your own fault," Rizzotti said. "The girls coming back, they will remember how it feels to have lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament."
The Hartford Hawks will return 4 out of their 5 starters including leading game scorer Alex Hall who had 10 points. Ruthanne Doherty also had 7 points and 3 rebounds for the Hawks. So in order for them to avoid being road kill for the UConn's of the world they have to avoid struggling in their nonconference like they did this season.
So that means going to work with the letter winners that will return for Hartford and coming in better prepared for what is needed for Hartford to be among the elite.
Hartford didn't play UConn this year to allow for some home and home series and allow Hartford to regroup talent wise. The series isn't going to resume next year but it is something that Rizzotti wants to do because a lot of her recruits grow up watching UConn. Perhaps one day soon it will be recruits saying I watched you beat UConn.
UConn advances to play the Purdue Boilermakers who was a 53-45 winner over Kansas State Wildcats. The game will be on the ESPN Family of Networks on Tuesday at 7:00 PM.