TAMPA, Fla. – This UConn victory was one of those games that takes on a life of its own, or a definition of its own. Had the Huskies won easily, like they did two weeks ago against South Florida, we’d be saying, ‘oh, big deal, it’s South Florida.’
But to come from behind the way they did, it gave the game a lot more meaning, much more of an emotional lift going into the Cincinnati rematch. One of those intangibles.
Bottom line is, whatever UConn’s shortcomings, this is a mentally tough team with good leadership. Sometimes the other team is better, or shoots better, but “the size of the fight in the dog,” as the saying goes, is there. Here’s the game story for the Thursday Courant.
Kevin Ollie was fired up about this win, as emotional as he’s been all year. Here’s his complete take:
We found something inside ourselves. … We played together. We got a spark from everybody. We were down nine, we could have folded our tent. Then we went on an 18-0 run, and it just shows the grit of my guys. It just shows the togetherness that we have. The confidence that we have. We knew we weren’t going to beat this team by 40, none of that stuff, but I did want to see the toughness that we had. And they played a hell of a game, they were beating us in every facet of the game in the first half and halfway through the second half.
But someway somehow we found a way to win and that’s what these guys have been doing for the last two years. And I’m so proud of these guys. It was one of the guttiest performances I’ve seen then play so far.
He scored 13 points in the last 11 minutes, I think, he had four points. It was Shabazz who was encouraging guys, keep your heads up, listen to the coaching staff, be tough out there. We need one rebound, we need o ne stop. That’s what great leaders do, they respond with courage.
I say that a lot. That’s what they do, they always think teammates first and I love him for that.
Terrence. Rarely plays, and for him to come in and get three steals in eight minutes and change the whole complexion of the game. I just needed some pace in the game, I just thought it was a game of half court. I wanted him to come in and wreak some havoc and that’s what he started doing, getting his hand on some balls, and we started pushing the ball and it was great to see. It gives me somebody I can go to in the three-guard set and we can push it and I can take Shabazz and Ryan off the ball a little bit.
Just shaking it up. You’ve got to do that as a coach sometimes. Nothing against Ryan, I just wanted to get some defense in there, get a bigger lineup in there so we could switch a lot of their down screens, [Victor] Rudd and a couple of other guys that they had.
Whether it’s nine or 10, we just got to stay together and start making some buckets. If it’s 11, 12 it don’t matter. We’ve got to start putting stops together, three stops, four stops. Then we started running, Boatright made a couple of shots to get the run going.
And then Shabazz, down the stretch, just took over the game like an All-American should and he was an All-American tonight. Just what he did in practice previous to this game was just unbelievable. He’s getting us ready and I think everybody is falling in line with his leadership.
We would like Amida [Brimah] to play but as a coach I’ve got to go with the feel of the game. Rudd came in at the four, I needed to go small and have my three guards out there and Niels playing the four. I just play by feel. Amida’s going to be a great player for us but tonight wasn’t h is night. That’s why we have a team and that’s why everybody plays. Tyler came in tonight and he didn’t have great numbers, but he came in and played 21 minutes. Sometimes I just coach like that, play by feel.
You know, you score 20 points in the first half, 22 points, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to mix it up. You can’t just stay pat. We tried to mix it up and find our rhythm out there and finally we got our rhythm. We started playing Connecticut basketball in a way that was good to see.
It was huge. It’s not the end of the world if we lost to USF but it’s huge. Just to fight back the way we fought back – together, nobody pointing fingers. All standing up, cheering for one another. That’s what it’s all about, man, that’s what I coach for, to have games like this. Brothers stay together, and they could have easily pulled apart and start pointing fingers and blaming each other. We took a step tonight and I’m very proud of them. We took a step.
[Niels Giffey has] been my rock the whole season and you know that. Whatever I ask the kid to do, he does. He never second guesses me, he just lets me coach him and he’s just a wonderful person to be around. You know how much I love Niels. He earned every minute. He got 36, 37 minutes, he earned every one of them. He’s going to keep doing that and I got to play the guys that are going to be tough, get them gritty rebounds. That guy gets dirty for me every night, and I appreciate that.”
Here are some great Steve Dunn pics from the game.
Talked to Terrence Samuel about Shabazz Napier’s mentoring, and Shabazz, too. That will be my story for tomorrow’s. The senior and the freshman, it’s pretty neat.
But for tonight, Samuel’s impactful eight minutes was the story, and the notebook and boxscore will soon be up on our main site..
Some South Florida quotes:
Victor Rudd on Shabazz Napier: “That guy, to me, is the player of the year. He’s the reason why this team is as good as it is. Hit a big shot at the end. Big players make big plays at the end of the day, and he did that.”
Stan Heath: “The first half we were phenomenal defensively on Napier and Boatright, but that’s what makes those guys special. Napier’s got that takeover ability, and you know it. We couldn’t get the key stop when we needed it. .. “When he gets in the NBA, maybe (someone can shut him down). But so far, nobody has had that answer. I’ve seen him hit the buzzer shot against Florida. I’ve seem him do it in our league. That’s what makes him special. He’s an assassin. He loves those moments.”
So the Huskies really do play the zone? This is one of those secrets we don’t get to see in practice. Ryan Boatright said they practice it a lot, and he was glad they “had it in their pocket” to change the game. With the three guards in there, it was a pretty extended zone, very effective.
As Ollie said, not a lot of time for Amida Brimah – eight minutes. DeAndre Daniels played only 18, with five points and five rebounds. The Bulls were just too big for UConn in a half court game, so Tyler Olander was the first big off the bench and played a lot more than usual, 21 minutes. Phil Nolan, in foul trouble, was limited to 11 minutes.
This wasn’t the night for Omar Calhoun to turn it around, though he went in there early. He ended up playing only seven minutes, and missing a couple of open threes.
The Huskies had 12 assists on 21 buckets, which is a ratio Ollie likes. Only eight turnovers. They played reasonably good D, holding the Bulls to 37.7 percent. Big factor: USF was 13 for 21 from the line, UConn 10 for 12.
Going to spend that day at my old haunt, the Yankees camp, tomorrow and come home Thursday night. Talk to you then.