For five weeks, Bria Hartley struggled with a sprained left ankle sustained serving her country winning gold as a member of USA Basketball’s 3×3 national team in Greece.
If that wasn’t bad enough, she did so aware that if she’d spoken up sooner about her injury, the treatment she ultimately received at UConn would have sped her return sooner than Nov. 22, the season’s fourth game.
Instead, training camp and the season’s first two weeks were like spring training for Hartley, UConn’s 2011 WBCA All-American. She fell behind a talented pack sprinting far ahead of her.
But Wednesday at the XL Center, the accumulated rust came off like a snake shedding its skin. Averaging just 7.5 points in her first six games, shooting barely over 40 percent, Hartley broke out in a big way against Oakland, scoring a season-high 21 points with five steals in No. 2 UConn’s decisive 97-25 win.
This was UConn’s first game since Dec. 6, a sluggish win over Penn State. And the days of practice in between proved vitality important for Hartley.
“All she needs is just time out on the floor and it was good that we had a bunch of days in a row that she could actually practice,” Geno Auriemma said. “I think it has done wonders for her. She looked like her old self out there. As we’ve said, little-by-little, she wanted to get back to it and [Wednesday] was a really big step in that direction.”
Hartley, who scored 1,005 points ( 13.2) in her first two seasons, hadn’t scored more than 12 in any of her six games this season. She scored one in 13 minutes in her second game against Marist on Nov. 23 at the Paradise Jam.
It became quickly apparent on Wednesday that things would be different.
“Being out for those five weeks, my stamina wasn’t exactly where I’m used to it being and I think there were times on the court where I was getting tired,” Hartley said. “But these 13 days off helped.
“I think I’m at my best when I’m making plays and being aggressive. I think my teammates are used to me doing that and I felt good out there [Wednesday].”
Here is how you could tell: Hartley opened the game with a 3-pointer, one UConn’s single-game record 40 attempted threes. She then assisted on Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis’ three-pointer and followed it with a steal, two free throws and two more steals resulting in layups.
Hartley had nine points and UConn was up 14-0 just 3:34 into the game. Welcome home.
“Bria is s a great player, a big part of this team,” said Breanna Stewart, who added 21 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. “If she plays like she did [Wednesday], that will really help us throughout the season. She was all over the place. It helped us get running and we took it from there.”
The Huskies played without freshman forward Morgan Tuck [knee] and sophomore center Kiah Stokes [stress reaction]. Both remain day-to-day heading to Saturday’s game at Hartford.
Without two of its power posts, UConn’s game briefly reverted to the 2011-12 model; reliant on outside shooting. And that ran hot and cold. UConn made only 12 of its 40 threes (30 percent) as Kelly Faris (1 of 5), Moriah Jefferson (1 of 6) and Stewart (1 of 5) struggled.
“It’s hard to pass when they don’t guard you. You have to shoot,” Auriemma said. “The object of running an offense is to get a good shot. If you look up and you are wide open, well, that’s a good shot. If you pass it once and you’re open, it’s a good shot. They kept doing that [defensively] so we just kept shooting. But you would be surprised how many open shots this team passes up.
“I hope everyone plays us like that, but I don’t think they will.”
That is why Hartley is so important on this deep, talented and unbeaten (9-0) team. She is an excellent three-point shooter and her progression will just make the defensive task opponents face progressively tougher.
“We are happy to have someone else out there that’s able to attract attention to themselves,” said Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, who scored 14 points. “It opens so much more for us on the floor.”
And with that UConn moves on, hoping that the exam layoff has helped bring one of their most important players back into her comfort zone.
“Nothing was broken, so there wasn’t much to fix,” Auriemma said. “There were just some things we spent 10 days on trying to make better. We just needed to fine-tune some things. We moved the ball better, had better spacing, made better decision by not throwing the ball into bad spots, the offense wasn’t as disjointed as it was during the Penn State game.
“We didn’t know where it was coming from [that night]. All those things were really good [Wednesday].”