It's been 12 days since the UConn women's team wrapped up the Big East Tournament, championship but the Huskies showed no signs of rust from the layoff against No. 16 Hartford. In fact, No. 1 UConn picked up right where they left off earlier in the month, defeating the Hawks, 75-39, although the game was decided long before the final whistle.
The Huskies led 40-17 at halftime, where they shot nearly 60 percent from the field and held Hartford to 25 percent on the other end. Freshman center Stefanie Dolson led the way with 12 points in the first 20 minutes, and it's been her emergence that has UConn coach Geno Auriemma most pleased.
"We knew it was going to be difficult because Hartford was going to collapse the lane and double Maya [Moore] everywhere she went," Auriemma told ESPN after the game. "Stefanie is probably our most impactful player from January to today -- the other guys are knowns -- but her progress has impacted our team more than any other single factor."
As for what Dolson's presence in the middle means for UConn's offense, Auriemma added, "It's given us an inside-outside game -- we were primarily a perimeter team and we have since become more balanced."
As has been the case all season, Auriemma rotated just seven players for most of the game, watched his team put forth a solid defensive effort, and somehow managed to avoid foul trouble in the process.
The plan for Hartford, coached by former UConn guard Jen Rizzotti, was to rotate just about every player on the bench into the game, keep everyone fresh and try to wear the Huskies down. It's been a winning strategy for most of the season and, more than that, was designed to prepare the Hawks for moments like this.
Holding true to form, Hartford played 11 players. But unless everything falls into place -- winning the loose balls, getting hot from beyond the arc, grabbing the rebound edge -- the disparity in talent can be overwhelming. Certainly Rizzotti understands this -- she played for UConn's first national championship team in 1995 -- but there's only so much coaching can do. At some point, talent wins. And when you marry coaching with some of the best players in the country, as UConn has done for most of Auriemma's tenure, the results are multiple national championships, record winning streaks and players that change the game.
As for Sunday's effort, in addition to Dolson, another freshman, Bria Hartley, had an impressive showing. She scored 12, four rebounds and three assists. More than that, she continues to play like a grizzled vet, quite comfortable with orchestrating the offense. Having Moore, the nation's best player doesn't hurt, but without Hartley's ability to push the ball up the floor, UConn's offense falls apart.
And the news gets better: with seven minutes to go, Heather Buck returned to the court for the first time since late February, when she suffered a foot injury that kept her out for five games. A few seconds later, she scored after grabbing an offensive rebound. Although she needs to work on her game conditioning, Buck's another player now at Auriemma's disposal as UConn looks to win their third consecutive national championship.
Next up: the Huskies will face the winner of Kansas St.-Purdue Tuesday at 7 p.m.