Bria Hartley has been to three Final Fours and has an NCAA title ring.
So when top-ranked Connecticut needed to counter a late Penn State rally, it was the senior point guard that handled the pressure
Hartley scored 11 of the Huskies’ final 14 points as injury-riddled Connecticut beat a highly-ranked team for the third time in a week by double digits with a 71-52 win over the No. 13 Lady Lions on Sunday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Hartley tied a career-high with 29 points and led a strong defensive effort that held Penn State to 30 percent (18 of 60) shooting and forced 20 Lady Lion turnovers.
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“I expect Bria to make the shots she made today because she’s a senior and has been in the Final Four every year she’s been at Connecticut,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said.
In contrast to a veteran opponent, a relatively young Lady Lion squad with three new faces in the starting lineup struggled to handle the pressure from a Huskie defense that also frustrated No. 3 Stanford on Monday and No. 8 Maryland on Friday. No opponent has scored more than 57 points against the Huskies this season.
“I saw a lot of inexperience,” Lady Lion coach Coquese Washington said. “I saw a lot of hesitation and indecisiveness. That leads to inefficiency and ineffectiveness, especially on the offensive end. But we need experience, so we like playing these kind of games because it shows a lot about ourselves.”
Only three of Penn State’s highly touted freshman class saw action and in a combined 24 minutes Kaliyah Mitchell, Alex Harris and Peyton Whitted produced just four points, all on free throws.
When asked if her young players were a little wide-eyed, Washington responded, “Absolutely, big-time wide-eyed.”
But several Penn State veterans also struggled. Ariel Edwards, who entered the game shooting 70 percent, went 1-for-13 from the floor and point guard Dara Taylor was 3-for-10 with five turnovers. Maggie Lucas, who got hot late to lead Penn State with 18 points, was 6-for-17 from the floor.
“We never really got into a flow offensively,” Washington said. “You can definitely attribute some of that to Connecticut and their defense.
“... We haven’t gelled yet. Our chemistry is not where it was last year when we had four starters that played together for three or four years. ...There’s going to be fits and lurches. There’s going to be ups and downs. There’s going to be zigs when we should have zagged, and zongs when we should have zinged and all that kind of stuff because they’re still learning how to play together.”
The contest was tied 10-10 early as Connecticut, without injured All-American Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and with only seven scholarship players , struggled with Penn State’s 2-3 zone. The Huskies got an unexpected lift from Saniya Chong. The freshman had 10 points in a 12-0 run that snapped the tie and gave Connecticut the lead for good. With Penn State shooting just 23 percent, the Huskies extended the margin to 37-22 at the break.
Chong had 13 of her 16 points in the half.
The Huskies extended the margin to 52-29 on a three-point play by Breanna Stewart with a little more than 12 minutes remaining and appeared to be on cruise control before Lucas and Tori Waldner helped fire up a the crowd of 8.194, featuring football coach Bill O’Brien and men’s basketball coach Patrick Chambers, that was desperate for something to cheer.
Waldner, a junior, made her first career 3-pointer and had five points, while Lucas drained three from long distance in a 19-5 run the pulled the Lady Lions to within 57-48 with 5 1/2 minutes left.
But, Hartley followed up a Stewart miss with a basket and nailed a 3-pointer on UConn’s next two possessions and Penn State never recovered.
“I think it comes from experience, being in those situations,” said Hartley when asked about her team’s poise at repelling the comeback attempt. “Me and Stephanie (Dolson) through our past three years know what to expect when those situations happen. We make sure we get everyone together, keep them together and make sure everyone is on the same page. In a game, the team is always going on a run. You have to withstand those runs.
“They went on their run. We just got everyone together and said, ‘Make sure we get stops on defense and come out and run our offense and get good shots.’ That’s what we did.”
Stewart added 14 points for the Huskies, who shot 44 percent (25 of 57). Dolson added a game-high 11 boards.
Auriemma praised his team for overcoming its injuries to knock off three NCAA-caliber teams.
“If we keep getting better, then it’s going to be harder to beat us, either on the road or at home,” he said. “If we stay stagnant and don’t move forward from here, we’re setting ourselves up to get beat. The fact that we’ve beaten three really good teams this week, that’s great for the players and their confidence.”
Waldner’s 11 points was a career high. Talia East came off the bench to grab 10 rebounds, seven on the offensive glass.
Despite the loss, Penn State players and Washington remained upbeat.
“I thought we fought in the second half,” said Lucas, who was 5 for 10 with four 3-pointers in the final 20 minutes. “When you get yourself in a hole like that against a great team, it is hard to get out of it. We really feel like they are a great team but execution-wise we need to better. That’s why you play a team like this early in the season. It gets you ready and prepared for later down the line when you’ll see a team like this again.”
“There are a lot of positives that we can take away and the best positive is that it’s November 17th and we’ve got 29 more games to play,” said Washington, whose team next hosts Bucknell at 7 p.m. Wednesday. “So we can take some lessons and we will get better and we will be fine.”
Auriemma, a Pennsylvania native who is very complimentary of Penn State and Washington, said he hopes that the two teams can continue playing each other in the regular season.
“If they want to, certainly it is something I’d want to keep doing,” he said. “It makes sense for us.”
“Definitely, yes,” Washington said. “I think it’s just a matter of finding dates.”
Notes: Pennn State fell to 1-10 all-time against No. 1 teams. ... The Lady Lions had their 22-game home winning streak snapped. ... UConn won its 50th straight game in November and its 199th over a ranked opponent. ... Penn State assistant coach Fred Chmiel ruptured the patella tendon in his left knee during practice Thursday and will have surgery Tuesday. ... Lucas (1,912 points) moved past Suzie McConnell to sixth on PSU’s career scoring list.