- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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WEST HARTFORD, Conn. -- Maybe wins and losses in November don't matter as much as wins and losses in March, especially for programs accustomed to walking the NCAA tournament tight rope out of one-bid conferences.
Maybe the best rivalries are reserved for conference foes that face each other for decades.
But neither calendar nor conference offer much resistance against Hartford senior Alex Hall's take on her team's 64-53 victory against Marist. People don't usually sound like this after a game played a week before Thanksgiving.
"I'm just so excited that we won. It feels like a championship," said Hall, who had lost three previous meetings to Marist. "To come back and get that solid win is awesome."
Sometimes a game matters because both teams believe it does.
On a night when Baylor and Kentucky understandably hogged headlines with their tilt in Waco, two programs that go about their business as well as any in the country, and two coaches who get as much out of their players as any of their ranked peers, played for the sixth season in a row in a rivalry that sums up the best of the mid-major scene. It might also have been the last meeting, at least temporarily, with no game currently in place for the 2013-14 season.
"To me, it's the best nonconference rivalry in the northeast in mid-majors," Marist coach Brian Giorgis said. "I can't think of any other two teams that go at it better than Hartford and Marist. And we just hope it continues."
Between them, Hartford's Jennifer Rizzotti and Giorgis have 14 NCAA tournament appearances in 23 seasons, the sum total of appearances for their schools. The rest of the country might not notice when they play, but it matters.
"It's been a great game for us -- win, loss," Rizzotti said. "It tests us, it's a battle to the end, it's never been easy. Like I said, it's good for our kids emotionally. They knew what was at stake because I talk about it. Of all the teams on our schedule, you take away UConn -- and last year maybe you take away Notre Dame -- Marist can compete for being the best team on our nonconference schedule year after year. I've told them that.
"And I told them they need to be up for this game, and they need to find a way to tough it out because we've lost a lot of close ones."
They appeared headed for another close finish for much of Tuesday's game, the lead changing hands eight times in the first half before the teams left the court to a 28-28 tie. Hartford started quickly, but despite uncharacteristic sloppiness, Marist gradually seemed to gain an upper hand through its defensive effort.
That the game changed in part because of some semi-miraculous shots was undeniable -- Englert flung a two-handed attempt from near the top of the key that banked in as the shot clock expired to give Hartford its first lead in the second half at 43-41; and Shanise Bultron banked in a 3-pointer from a step beyond the top of the key to again beat the shot clock and give her team a lead it never surrendered at 46-43. But it wasn't solely good fortune that allowed the Hawks to shoot 64 percent in the second half.
It turned out to be a good shooting night for just about everyone in a Hartford uniform. And everyone is a lot of people.
The Hawks returned all five starters this season, but only three of them started the first two games this season. Both seniors, Hall and Nikkia Smith gave up their starting spots to redshirt freshman Katie Roth and junior Alyssa Englert, not as punishment for poor play but because it makes the team better by making it deeper.
"To be able to play 10 guys significant minutes, where they were all able to contribute something to the game, is big for us," Rizzotti said. "And to have a freshman and a sophomore in the [starting] lineup is a credit to them, but it also makes our bench stronger to have Nikkia and Alex coming off of it. That's something we talked a lot with our coaching staff about, was we were really good with our first group last year, but we had nothing to turn to in terms of offense when we looked down the bench."
The stronger second unit also allows Rizzotti to manage the minutes of Ruthanne Doherty and Daphne Elliott, the team's two best players but players who are more efficient when they get some breathers. Doherty led all scorers with 14 points, hitting 5-of-6 shots down the stretch after a 1-of-7 start. Marist's youth appeared to be a bigger factor than fatigue when the game slipped out of reach in the final 10 minutes, but it didn't hurt Hartford to have depth.
In the end, as hard and as well as it played defense in the first half and as hard as it competed all night, Marist looked like a wounded team. Earlier in the day, redshirt sophomore Tori Jarosz learned she would miss 3-to-6 months, almost certainly ending her season, with a wrist injury that nobody had any idea would be that serious when she sustained it in an opening win against Vermont. A 6-foot-3 athletic post player who transferred from Vanderbilt and earned preseason all-conference honors in the MAAC without ever having played a game in the league, Jarosz represented the kind of difference-making talent that usually bypasses programs like these.
Adding to the woes, 6-foot-5 freshman Delaney Hollenbeck also is sidelined by injury. After the game, Giorgis suggested that a redshirt season remains a possibility.
"We went in thinking that we would be able to, size-wise, match up with a lot of people," Giorgis said. "Now we don't match up size-wise. But the thing is, like I tell our kids, we're still 0-0. We're still a one-bid conference for the most part, and you just hope that you learn from this. And to me, there are a lot more positives than negatives out of this game. I'm proud of them."
Whether the Red Foxes get their own shot at redemption next season depends on Hartford. Rizzoitti said after the game she wants to continue the series, and it likely wouldn't suffer worse than a one-year hiatus, but she needs to find more home games next season and is a proponent of mixing up opponents after a five- or six-year stretch.
It would be a shame if it doesn't happen. All you had to do to know what this one meant was listen.
"Marist is a team that, they're really consistent every year, if you look at their stats, if you look at how they finish the postseason," Doherty said. "For us to get this early win, just really boosts our fire."
On a night when Baylor and Kentucky understandably hogged headlines, Hartford outlasted Marist in one of the nation's top mid-major rivalries.