By Mel Greenberg
When Temple meets Hartford at the Hawks' Chase Arena Saturday afternoon, the matchup will bring together a Connecticut reunion of sorts in the Owls' second-year coach Tonya Cardoza and now-veteran Hartford coach Jennifer Rizzotti.
Cardoza nearly had a head-on reunion with her former boss Geno Auriemma in last season's NCAA tournament when the Owls got sent to Storrs for a sub-regional game but Florida got in the way of the impending matchup with a win over Temple in the first round.
Auriemma and Cardoza are still trying to find room for a regular season game on a future schedule.
Although she has yet to play against the Huskies, whose Auriemma won his 700th game Friday night, Cardoza will be opposite sidelines Saturday against Rizzotti, who in some circles is affectionately named "Little Geno" from her days as a fiesty point guard on UConn's first NCAA title in 1995.
Rizzotti was hired in 1999 and quickly led Hartford to prominence in the America East Conference and later in the nation with upsets of Top 25 teams.
The Hawks have made four NCAA tournament appearances and in 2006 they upset Temple in a first-round game in Trenton when the Owls were nationally-ranked at 19th.
That game caused a different trip down memory lane when Dawn Staley was Temple's coach and the two had competed against each other as players in the former American Basketball League and then in the WNBA.
Last season, Cardoza moved on from a 14-year stay with the Huskies -- a period in which Rizzotti was her first pupil as the coach in charge of the guards.
Rizzotti recalled their early relationship Friday in a phone call from Hartford.
"She came my junior year and I do remember she was real quiet when she got there," Rizzotti said.
"It took her about a half a year before she grew into that role of taking over the guards. But I just remember he being a real player’s coach," Rizzotti continued.
"Like we all liked her and we responded well to her coaching. You felt like she was always on your side. She was always rooting for you to do well," she explained.
"Coach Auriemma was there to get on you and nag you and pick on everything you do and she was there to pick up the pieces and make sure that you stayed confident.She really, really cheered your success as a player.
I think that’s why everybody liked her so much who played for her."
Hartford's success this season in which the Hawks are off to a 3-1 start while Temple is rolling at 5-0 includes a recent upset of Louisville, a Big East power which advanced to last season's NCAA title game before losing to the Huskies.
"We’ve tried real hard to build the program," Rizzotti said. "We kind of like our role of being the underdog but also we like to get the respect we think we deserve.
" Sometimes it makes it tough because when we try to schedule teams, they don’t want to come play us because they think about how many ranked teams we’ve beaten in our gym," she explained.
"But the nice thing is when you have coaches of other mid-majors that are really good – like Tonya, and Brian Giorgis at Marist and the guy out of Bowling Green – Curt Miller-- you have people who understand the importance of playing games like this.
"You don’t have the problem of scheduling a really good mid-major because they want the challenge and they want to prepare themselves, they’re always willing to play. So we’re really happy Temple wanted to start a series for us."
Rizzotti got an education on the NCAA system this past summer when she participated in another of a series of mock-bracket exercises that have been conducted in Indianapolis. The first two were late-season events in which the media were major participants before coaches began receiving invitations.
"I kind of knew a lot about it," she said of how teams get picked for at-large sports -- Hartford has gone the automatic bid route all four times. "But looking at it the way the committee looks at it was beneficial to me because you learn what else you have to do. We always want to win the conference but we need to find other ways into the tournament if someone else wins the America East and we're having a good season.
"When they look at it in the frame of your resume and your schedule and have those top 25 wins blocked off on a grid, well I said to the committee – When you look at Hartford you don’t have a lot of those 1-25 games, period, because you can’t them or the 25-50 teams.
"But you look at a team from the Big East like Villanova and they like have ten of them – not because they scheduled them but because they have to play them," Rizzotti said.
"But it really showed us we’re we have to bulk up on scheduling. However, we have to work hard to get those teams that want to play us.
"And then sometimes when you schedule two years in advance, the team you thought was good loses players and then the win doesn't mean anything anymore."
As for Saturday's game, Rizzotti said Temple is much different than the last time the two schools met.
Incidentally, the Hawks will visit St. Joseph's this coming Friday in a Hawks vs. Hawks contest.
"They’re much more guard oriented now than they were then," Rizzotti said of Temple. "When we played them the last time, everything was centered on Candice Dupree and Kamesha Hairston, but Dupree was going to get a lot of their shots so we were very defensive oriented in taking away her good looks toward the basket. I remember we doubled in the post and challenged their guys to make outside shots.
"They’re kind of in reverse right now. They have some really, really talented guards. They can create for themselves – they can knock down threes, they get going in transition, their defense creates offense and then their post players are kind of there to get the garbage points. They offensive rebound hard – they don’t take a possession off from trying to get a free bucket under the basket.
"So they are very different now then the team we played last time. They play more full court offense than they did in the NCAA tournament," Rizzotti said.
"It’s totally different for them with Dawn gone and Tonya taking over the helm.
"It’s different for us. Our kids, we have one kid left from that game – Erica Beverly and that’s because she red-shirted," Rizzotti continued.
"It’s kind of a new series. It’s a great game to test ourselves to see where we are and to prepare ourselves in our conference and to play a team that’s going to be a top RPI team in the country.
"That’s what we wanted so we’re excited about the game.
"It’s good for both teams. No one is going to lose. If you win, you’ve beaten a good team and if you lose, no one is going to look at it as a bad loss.
"Tonya and I are realistic – It’s early. We’re playing some young guys, She’s still relatively a new team. It’s just a relative good marker to see where we are."
Delle Donne gets another double double
Area teams had nearly a clean sweep Friday night in holiday tournament action, highlighted by Delaware's Elena Delle Donne scoring 21 points and grabbing 10 rebounds as the Blue Hens (2-1) beat Houston, 72-43, in the first round of Colorado State's tournament. Tesia Harris also scored 21 points to send Delaware into Saturday's title game against Colorado State.
Houston (3-3) scored first and then Delaware went on a 19-0 run in the wake of some lineup changes by coach Tina Martin following last Saturday's loss at Princeton.
“I thought the lineup changes were a big part of our success tonight,” Martin said. “We’ve got a good thing going with our chemistry in sync and we’re thrilled about that -- it was a great win for us tonight.”
Meanwhile, St. Joseph's finally found the basket after a woeful night against Vanderbilt on Hawk Hill Tuesday deprived the Hawks (2-3) of a potential upset of a nationally-ranked team.
They beat host Florida International,64-48, as Kelly Cavallo had career highs of 10 points and 11 rebounds. The Hawks will meet St. John's in Sunday's title game.
Rutgers is not letting sun and surf going to the Scarlet Knights' heads in the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.
The Scarlet Kights (4-2) upset No. 19 Mississippi State, 62-54 as Brittany Ray scored a career-high 27 points. Next up is nationally-ranked Texas on Saturday.
Penn State (3-1) beat Buffalo, 85-65 in Maine's Dead River Company tournament as Zhaque Gray had a game-high 19 points, also a career best. The Nittany Lions will play Holy Cross in the final after the Crusaders upset Maine, 61-59.
Vlllanova (3-1) has a date in the title game of Chattanooga's tournament against the host Mocs after the Wildcats beat Evansville, 56-49, as Laura Sweeney scored 14 points and Maria Getty had 13.
Penn (0-4) stayed competitive early against Iowa State before falling to the Cyclones, 78-38, in Northwestern's tournament in Evanston, Ill. Jerin Smith and Caitlin Slover each scored 10 points. Next up is a game Saturday against the host Wildcats, who are coming off a big upset of DePaul earlier in the week.