During the long recovery from her severe left ankle sprain in late August, UConn junior Bria Hartley could feel herself tickled at times by playful teammates and coaches.
The idea was to keep the mood light as Hartley recovered. She was stressed about not playing and everyone knew it.
So after UConn opened with well-rounded wins over College of Charleston and Texas A&M, during which it scored 184 points from every conceivable depth and angle, the Huskies occasionally kidded the All-American that things were perfectly cool without her.
Of course, they could only get better with her. And that became apparent Thursday when No. 2 UConn opened play in the Paradise Jam tournament with a comprehensive 95-34 win over Wake Forest at the University of Virgin Islands.
"It's very hard to complain about the way we played," coach Geno Auriemma said.
Breanna Stewart led five Huskies (3-0) in double-figures with 20 points. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck had 16 each.
Stefanie Dolson scored 11 points, including the first three of her career, from the top of the key, in a first half that was more clinic than competition.
"It was so exciting, my first one," Dolson said. "Breanna begs me every day, 'Stef, give me a three.'"
Freshman guard Moriah Jefferson was the only UConn player not to score. The Huskies shot 35 of 51 (68.6 percent) and had 23 assists.
"We came into this tournament knowing that we wanted to take care of business," said Stewart, who has scored 52 points in her first three games. "We are having fun in the Virgin Islands, but we are also here to play basketball."
Hartley excelled in her debut, gliding effortlessly around the floor to score eight points with four rebounds, three assists and three steals in 15 minutes.
The Huskies (3-0) continue play in the Island Division Friday against Marist at 8:15 and end it Saturday against Purdue at 8:15. All games will be televised by SNY.
It wasn't what Hartley added Thursday that mattered as much as what she will contribute to an already deep team. UConn will now have at least nine players who can score from any place on the floor. And that's a defensive nightmare without parallel in the nation.
Hartley, who injured herself playing for USA Basketball's 3 x 3 team in Greece, did not start Thursday. Auriemma said he will bring her along slowly.
So UConn went with its regular five — Caroline Doty, Mosqueda-Lewis, Dolson, Stewart and Kelly Faris — and got right to work to crush the Demon Deacons.
Hartley entered for the first time with 15:15 to play in the first half, UConn already in control of the tempo and leading, 12-0. She looked like she had never left, covering ground like she did when last we saw her during the NCAA Tournament.
"I felt a little slower, to be honest," Hartley said. "Certainly that was the case defensively. It was a little hard to react at times."
Within moments she had her first assist on a basket by Stewart that made it 16-2. With 13:28 to play she made her first shot to make it 20-2.
But the real sign that she was back came a few sequences later when she ran the baseline to chase down a rebound and then took the ball immediately to the basket for a score.
"I just saw the ball and went after it," Hartley said.
This was the way the first half went. It was an impressive display of athleticism and determination, the tenets of the program. For UConn fans, this was the whipped cream on their pumpkin pie.
They opened by scoring the first 12 points. And they ended the half with the last 15 to make it 45-12.
UConn barely allowed Wake Forest a breath, rushing the ball up the floor, defending every possession like it was March; hands up one second, extended for the steal the next. It created havoc for the Demon Deacons.
"Our defensive intensity was great the entire game," Auriemma said. "We forced a lot of bad shots. And we got out into transition well in the first half, which was something we've worked very hard on in practice."
Wake Forest missed its first eight shots and didn't make a field goal for the first seven minutes. In the first half it shot 4 of 32 with 12 turnovers. The Demon Deacons ended the game shooting 12 of 55 (21.8 percent) with 23 turnovers.
Meanwhile, UConn's top 10 players shared the floor and the ball. Stewart scored eight of UConn's first 18 points (12) and ended the half with as many points as Wake Forest. She was 6 of 8 from the floor, converting most of her shots from under the rim after a precision pass from the perimeter.
Her teammates were just as efficient, shooting 18 of 27. Dolson had 11 points in the first half, making all three shots, including the monumental three that brought a smile to her face.Copyright © 2015, CT Now