Storrs, Conn.-- America East Champion Hartford faces a tough task going up against number one-seeded Connecticut in the first round of the NCAA Tournament Sunday at noon on ESPN2. No matter what happens when the 16-seeded Hawks take the court at Gampel Pavilion, the appearance in the postseason marks the culmination of a challenging, yet fulfilling, season for Head Coach Jennifer Rizzotti and her team.
The Hawks started the season off at 1-9 with a young team along with a bevy of injuries and off-the-court obstacles. Hartford hit its stride once conference season began in January, and after getting over a few more injuries to key players during the first go-round of the conference slate, the Hawks now find themselves playing their best basketball of the season.
"Starting 2-0 [in conference play] and getting some wins under our belt certainly helped and again, getting everybody healthy and ready for February that was it," said Rizzotti during Saturday's press conference at Gampel Pavilion. "It was all we needed to feel good about our depth and about our game experience. I think our kids gained a lot of confidence about the fact that we were winning and some of the top teams were losing. That kind of carried us through the tournament."
Hartford (17-15) has won six straight leading up to this weekend, as well as 11 of its last 12 games, including the America East Championship title game over second-seeded Boston U. last Saturday to win the conference's autobid to the NCAAs.
Hartford sophomore forward Ruthanne Doherty, a third-team All-America East selection, is a large part of Hartford's success the second half of the season. She has six double-doubles on the season, including five in the last eight games and three over the last four games. Doherty has also turned up the scoring over the last three months. After failing to hit double-digit points in the first 14 games of the season, Doherty hit twin figures 11 out of 16 games to finish the season, raising her scoring average from 4.7 ppg on January 5 to her current average of 7.6 ppg.
"She's been a big key to her success this year," Rizzotti said Saturday of Doherty's return from a groin surgery in August. "Her production in the America East had to double or triple based on what she was doing early in the season. I remember the game at Boston U. when we lost feeling like that was her best game to that point and was a real turning point for us as a team because we started playing really well."
Hartford is making its sixth overall appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2011, and fifth as the automatic qualifier out of the America East Conference. The Hawks are 2-5 (.286) overall in the Big Dance, making appearances in 2002, 2005, 2006, 2008 and 2010. Last year's bid to the NCAAs was the program's first-ever at-large bid. This year marks Hartford's second back-to-back presence in the tournament's field of 64.
America East teams have won four games all-time in the NCAA Tournament, but three of them have come since 2006. Hartford has two of them, over Temple in 2006 and over Syracuse in 2008. Vermont won the program's first NCAA win by upsetting Wisconsin last year. Maine is responsible for the fourth win, defeating Stanford back in 1999.
Connecticut (32-1) also won its league to receive an autobid, taking home the BIG EAST Championship. Hartford and Connecticut have met 11 times in the two programs' histories with the Huskies taking all of them. The intrastate rivalry dates back to 1985. Since Rizzotti has taken over the Hartford program, the Hawks are 0-6 against the Huskies with all the games being played at the XL Center in downtown Hartford.The 2010-11 season was the first season since 2003-04 which the two programs did not meet in the regular season.
When asked about playing Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament, senior Jackie Smith answered, "I've never played in Gampel before. All of our games against them have been at the XL Center. I walked in with my video camera going. I came here to watch games when I was younger and just to be able to play here is awesome. It's a wicked cool experience. As Alex said, we're going to handle the game like we always do, but it's a lot of fun for us."
No matter what the result of the NCAA game is, these Hawks have already had the experience of getting to this point and are having fun.