- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- To get any farther from spring than Poughkeepsie in December you need sled dogs -- or at the very least, directions to Lake Placid. But nights like Wednesday are exactly when the seeds are sown for the surprises that bloom in March.
Just as when Montana and Wyoming squared off in Laramie, Wyo., or Wisconsin-Green Bay and Illinois State battled in Normal, Ill., in November games, Hartford and Marist didn't have a national spotlight shining on them when they met Wednesday night in Poughkeepsie. And after watching Hartford defend its way to a 49-32 win that snapped Marist's 26-game home winning streak, it's a shame for any unsuspecting team unlucky enough to draw the Hawks in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
It's not easy to win a game when you shoot 39 percent in the second half and that was the half when you were hot from the field. For that matter, it's not easy to win a game in upstate New York in December when your shooting percentage for the game rivals the temperature outside. But Hartford did just that by flummoxing a Marist team that entered the game with an 11-1 record and quality wins against Utah and Nebraska.
"I still think we can get a little bit better defensively, but we've taken a big step forward in the last two weeks," Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti said. "We lost four games ago [at Massachusetts] because our defense was terrible, and we've really been focusing on it and I made it very clear to the team that that's going to be our focus going forward, because that's what has carried us over the last two years into the postseason. Today was a perfect example of when the offense isn't going well, it doesn't matter if you're defending. And a lot of teams don't have that philosophy. I think Marist does, and I think Hartford does."
Even after limiting the Red Foxes to five field goals in the first half, and holding Rachele Fitz without a field goal attempt, Hartford seemed to be on the verge of paying a price for its own offensive woes against an equally well-coached and well-prepared defense. Fitz, who entered the game averaging 17 points on 54.8 percent shooting, began to find space on cuts to the post in the early minutes of the second half, scoring 12 points in the first 10 minutes after the break as Marist briefly claimed leads at 26-25 and 28-27.
Hartford's Danielle Hood eventually pushed her team back out front to stay with six straight points that pushed the margin to 35-29 with just more than six minutes to play. But that offensive outburst from the experienced senior proved the difference only because of the defensive adjustment Rizzotti made beforehand that slowed Marist's run. The Hawks went to a light half-court trap that extended Marist's entry point into its half-court sets, then fell back into a zone that erased the space Fitz had been exploiting in the post.
"They made a good adjustment to take the help away from the weak side, so when they were cutting to the basket, we didn't have anyone there to help our post player on those post feeds," Rizzotti explained. "So we just felt like their movement is less in zone, in their zone offense, so they're almost easier to guard in their zone offense than they were in their man."
The last time Marist, which shot just 27 percent in the game, scored fewer than 50 points was against eventual national champion Tennessee last season in the Sweet 16. And the last time Marist failed to break 40 points, coach Brian Giorgis was just 21 games into his college coaching career during the 2002-03 season.
"I didn't know who was out there," Giorgis said of his team Wednesday. "Because I've never seen us play that tentative."
It will be unfortunate, although not entirely surprising, if this game loses its context come March. Despite having an unusually big and athletic team for a mid-major -- especially with Hood, Diana Delva (16 rebounds) and Erica Beverly across the front line -- Hartford will likely struggle to stay with second-ranked Connecticut in a few weeks in a game where the score will likely be remembered more than this one. Likewise, Marist will suffer as the months pass as the 17-point loss at home against another mid-major takes on a life of its own on the black and white of the results column.
But perhaps the landscape of college basketball has shifted enough for Hartford to receive due credit for an impressive nonconference road win just as impressive, if not more so, than a home win against Michigan State would be on Dec. 22. And perhaps that even happens without penalizing Marist to the point of making Wednesday's result a virtual elimination game for future at-large consideration.
"The games where we're playing the top-50-ish RPI are probably more important than UConn, who is No. 2," Rizzotti said. "Because the chances of us beating UConn aren't great, everyone expects us to lose. But when you start beating teams in major conferences and you start beating teams like Marist, who has established themselves in the NCAA Tournament, I think you do get some attention and you do start getting a few more votes every week and your RPI starts to get lower and lower and people start to consider you to be a better team.
"That's what we're fighting for, and I know Marist is doing the same thing. We're fighting for respect; we're fighting for the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament without having to get an automatic bid."
All of which made for a pretty good mid-December chess match for anyone paying attention to Poughkeepsie.
Or as Rizzotti summed up, "I've enjoyed watching them through the last couple of years in the NCAA Tournament, sometimes at the same site, because they play smart, they play hard, their kids are tough and I think it reminds me a lot of our program."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Don't let Hartford's low-scoring 49-32 win at Marist on Wednesday fool you. These are two programs fighting for respect -- and the right to play in the NCAA Tournament without having to get an automatic bid.