UConn got back to its roots, and did it with defense.
They blocked shots (six), they made steals (eight) and pressured the opponent into turnovers (15), they contested shots, allowing a 36.5 field goal percentage, and they forced the opponent, Central Florida, to go against its strengths, trying 21 shots from 3-point range, with five makes.
So on a night when the Huskies played a team with a reputation for dogged defense, they were the stingier team. And that made UConn’s offense much more effective.
Going retro can be cool, you know.
This was the basis for UConn’s best win of the season, a 62-53 victory over UCF, which came in with 12 wins, and in the top 60 in the RPI. The Huskies (9-7) are even at 2-2 in the American Athletic Conference, where only Wichita State and Cincinnati are still undefeated, and after a series of disheartening losses and unconvincing wins, have earned the right to exhale and feel better about themselves with half the season still in front of them.
The program’s big-picture problems, lack of buzz and dwindling attendance, the need to find a solution to the conference affiliation, make it difficult to focus on one game anymore. But that’s what the coaches and the players must do, and the next step is to sustain, and get some road wins. UConn plays at Tulane on Saturday and Memphis on Tuesday, before the game everyone has circled against top-ranked Villanova at the XL Center on Jan. 20.
Here are some takeaways:
Coach Kevin Ollie began to pare down his rotation, playing six players significant (more than 10) minutes, with four others getting limited time. UConn never trailed, and led by as much as 14 early in the second half, and 12 in the final minutes, so it was likely a case of sticking with what was working. But with Isaiah Whaley (five blocks, six rebounds, four offensive rebounds) establishing himself as a regular, the Huskies have a little more organized look. On the floor, some reason chemistry seemed to develop around it, as the Huskies did not rush their offense, shooting 43.2 percent, taking a modest dozen 3-pointers and getting the important baskets when needed.
It wasn’t all smooth and silky, of course. UConn still turned it over too much — 14 times — and had eight assists. It’s worth reiterating that one can’t focus solely on the number of assists, because missed shots, especially 3s, tend to keep that number down. The Huskies generally made better decisions with the ball, but need to be still more diligent in protecting it, especially with the lead.
Challenge And Response
The best part of this game for UConn was beyond internal stats. It was the fact they never gave up the lead. The Huskies were up seven in the first half, UCF quickly got within one, and then UConn stretched it back out to nine. They led by 14 in the second half, and UCF made a 15-2 run to again get within one, but UConn responded again, and pushed back. There were a couple of other surges, too. The Huskies played tenaciously with the lead, made the big stop to hold it, the big basket to get momentum back. This is what winning teams do consistently.
The Fine Line
There’s nothing wrong with being edgy and combative. In fact, showing a little more passion and fight is a good look for a team as beleaguered as UConn has been. Christian Vital embodies this. However, with brief, relative minor incidents in the handshake line following consecutive games and the one little shoving match pregame on Wednesday, it’s on the edge of a fine line. For instance, the minor pregame incident was caught on an iPhone, tweeted, and ended up on the telecast. Fair or not, these things go viral. So it will be important for Vital and the Huskies to keep the edge and the attitude, without losing composure. Opponents will sure try to instigate, and the Huskies don’t need the wrong kind of fight right now.
Okay, let’s go down this road, Jim Calhoun Way, again. Big picture. The students are not back on campus yet, so that should be taken into account, but Gampel was half full and never very loud for a conference game, one with some meaning. Maybe a winning streak can change that, but it’s looking more and more as if the buzz surrounding this program, and buzz was so important to building this program, is disappearing and won’t return without a seismic change. There was so much more excitement and enthusiasm for UConn home games in 2012-13 — when the Huskies were ineligible for the postseason and using a patched-together roster — than there is now. Ineligible, nothing to play for except the pride of getting a 20th win, and the building was pulsating compared to now.
Subscribe and listen to the UConn Insider Podcast