HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT - JANUARY 27: Tina Charles #14 of the United States looks for a shot over Megan Walker #3 and Olivia Nelson-Ododa #20 of the UConn Huskies during USA Women's National Team Winter Tour 2020 game between the United States and the UConn Huskies at The XL Center on January 27, 2020 in Hartford, Connecticut.
(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

New York Liberty star Tina Charles returned to America for a special night at the site of some of her earliest basketball heroics.

Geoff Magliocchetti

HARTFORD, CT- International duties often dominating her time off from the New York Liberty. So, it was only appropriate that Tina Charles made her return to American basketball representing the flag in a city often called the “College Basketball Capital of the United States”.

On Monday night, Charles and several fellow American superstars returned to the site of countless victorious memories. A good portion of those trials of victory were penned by the Liberty star herself.

The visit was part of a Team USA basketball trip to Hartford’s XL Center for an exhibition clash against the University of Connecticut Huskies. Charles was one of five UConn alumnae in uniform for the Americans, who earned a hard-fought 79-64 victory.

An evening of roller-coaster emotions awaited both sides. The Huskies commemorated the return of their on-court heroines by honoring their championship squads from 2009 and 2010. Charles played a major role in each of those banner-raises prior to hearing her name called with the top pick of the 2010 WNBA Draft.

Charles helped the Huskies of the past take an early lead on Storrs and Hartford’s present and future. Over the first eight-plus minutes of action, Charles earned six points, two assists, and four rebounds as the Americans built an 18-5 lead. She didn’t score again over the final three frames but did lead all rebounders with nine.

Team USA head coach Cheryl Reeve remarked that the first quarter was “how it should be”. The Americans were victims of an upset in their last college visit, a 93-86 loss to the Oregon Ducks in Eugene back in November.

“We felt in the first quarter we were imposing our will and feeling our success,” Reeve said, “(The last 36 hours) were a lot. We’re all pretty drained… we’ll have a good night’s sleep tonight.”

Monday marked Charles’ first national team action since the 2019 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup tournament in San Juan, Puerto Rico. She’s since partaken in professional action in China for Jiangsu Phoenix where she is currently averaging 24.2 points per game.

Domestically, Charles was recently given “core” status by the Liberty, according to High Post Hoops. Under this designation, New York retains Charles’ rates at a $215,000 rate, the highest under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Joining Charles on the floor in Hartford sisterhood was Sue Bird, Katie Lou Samuelson, and Breanna Stewart. Dianna Taurasi was on hand but didn’t play due to back soreness. Stewart partook in her first game action since tearing her Achillies in a professional game overseas.

Sylvia Fowles topped American scoring with 19 points. Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla McBride united for a combined 26 off the bench. UConn put up a spirited effort, even taking several brief leads after trailing by as much as 15.

The narrow game delighted a packed XL Center, whose seats were occupied by basketball luminaries. Hall-of-Famer and former Liberty head coach Katie Smith was among those in attendance, alongside Dallas Wings head coach Brian Agler and WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

Team USA would put things away by outscoring the Huskies 27-13 in the final quarter. Junior forward Megan Walker led the way with 22 points for a UConn squad currently ranked third in the Associated Press’ women’s basketball poll.

“I wish I could’ve used the 09 and 10 teams as subs. That would’ve helped a little bit,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said with a smile after the game,

“I’m proud that so many (USA) players are UConn alums. We took them in as the best high school players. They became the best college players, then the best WNBA players, and then they become the best Olympians. I’m damn proud of that.”

Looming large over the proceedings was the death of Kobe Bryant. The NBA star and his daughter Gianna passed away on Sunday in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California. They, along with seven others who perished in the crash, were on their way to basketball practice at Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks.

A seat on the UConn bench was adorned in a jersey bearing the younger Bryant’s name and number. A developing player in her own right, Gianna (affectionately nicknamed “Gigi”) had dreams of playing in both Hartford as a future Husky and the WNBA.

The two were honored before tip-off with a 24-second moment of silence reflecting one of the elder Bryant’s jersey numbers with the Los Angeles Lakers. Tributes continued as the game began.

Team USA won the tip-off and held the ball in the backcourt to create an eight-second violation in honor of Bryant’s first Los Angeles numeral. UConn then took an intentional 24-second violation as the crowd roared.

Reeve never met Bryant personally, but referred to him as an advocate who “got real close to our game”.

“His advocacy for women’s basketball was so meaningful. Gigi was a big reason why,” she said, “He made many women’s basketball players feel special and valued.”

Team USA will continue an exhibition tour of colleges on Sunday afternoon, as they’ll take on fifth-ranked Louisville at KFC Yum! Center (2:00 p.m. ET, ESPN). UConn continues their regular season on Thursday night in Storrs against Cincinnati (7:00 p.m. ET, SNY/ESPN3).

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffMags5490.

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