Before Kevin Ollie walked out onto Gampel Pavilion, George Blaney handed him a little note that said, "Enjoy it."
Ollie took his time. He walked out slowly, his staff behind him to a warm round of cheers.
"I don't know if I enjoyed it," he said. "When you go 1-for-9 [to start the game], I'm like, 'Man, this might be my only game out there.'"
The Huskies spotted Division II American International College a 10-point early lead, but steadied, played much better in the second half and won 78-63 before 5,349 at Gampel Pavilion.
"Nobody said it was going to be easy, and it wasn't easy out there tonight," Ollie said, "but we have a foundation. I thought we responded the right way in the second half."
The first few minutes, for sure, did nothing to alleviate the pessimists' worst fears about the upcoming season. The Huskies were getting out-rebounded by a Division II opponent, were turning the ball over and not identifying shooters in transition and missed eight of their first nine shots. AIC, getting too many open looks, ran off 10 points in a row to take a 12-2 lead.
"Coach Calhoun would've let us know about our mistakes in a way different way," Ryan Boatright said. "The fans would've gotten a show."
But Calhoun, who retired in September, is conscious of "managing his shadow," of how his expressions might be read, so as he sat on the baseline with athletic director Warde Manuel, he watched with no expression on his face. Ollie was calm, offering encouragment.
"He just kept it positive," said DeAndre Daniels, who led UConn with nine rebounds. "He said, 'We're just not playing our game, we have to play much harder, we're not giving effort and we're not talking on defense.' … It was just him talking to us and telling us what we needed to do."
Ollie had started a lineup of Boatright, Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and Daniels. Freshman Omar Calhoun checked in after 3 minutes and 3 seconds. He missed his first two shots in a UConn uniform, then watch a three fall and he was off and running. He ended up scoring 24.
"In the first half, I was a little jittery," Calhoun said. He hit three of six three-pointers, 8 of 14 from the floor.
"You're going to see that all year, from what I've seen of Omar," Boatright said.
Later, Ollie inserted R.J. Evans, the grad student from Holy Cross, and he set an example by going hard to the basket. "I've been praising R.J. and he is still that rock I look to," Ollie said. "He came in and settled us in and we started playing better basketball when he came into the game."
The Huskies struggled back to within one point, 28-27, at the half, and then took control of it in the second half with a 16-0 run. Boatright, who had been quiet, scored 11 points in the sequence, stealing the ball at one point and driving to the basket, drawing a foul. He finished with 14, Napier with 11.
"The guys paid attention," Ollie said. "Shabazz, Boat[right], Tyler [Olander], they kept the guys together. We worked off Boat's ball pressure, and that's what we need."
UConn ended up with a modest edge in rebounds, 39-31, and shot 50 percent, 16 for 32, in the second half, looking more in sync.
"A few of the young guys didn't know what to expect," Olander said, "and we played a disciplined, efficient team. But I liked the way we bounced back. We chipped away little by little, and then we kind of owned the second half."
That this was such a struggle, with one more exhibition against UMass-Lowell on Sunday at XL and then a big opening challenge against Michigan State in Germany on Nov. 9, makes it difficult to avoid having concerns.
"We have to get back to the fundamentals," Ollie said, "the things we've been coaching and teaching. I have to look at myself in the mirror, and they have to look at themselves. This is a process. The effort was there, but I need to see it more consistently."
Ollie spoke to his predecessor briefly after the game, and will continue to do that. "I need to keep him as a resource," Ollie said. "I know he will give it to me straight."
Freshman Phil Nolan, 6-9, had a rough first time out for UConn, fouling out in nine minutes without scoring, grabbing two rebounds. UConn's other newcomer, Leon Tolksdorf, played only three minutes, so Ollie essentially used a nine man rotation. … Omar Calhoun's parents and his sister were up from Brooklyn to see the game. He said there were no major problems from the storm for them. Ollie did tell him to tone down his celebrations. "I didn't like the gestures after the layups," Ollie said. "I told him, 'That's not who we are.'" … Enosch Wolf did not play, but his concussion is about cleared up and he is expected to play on Sunday. … Olander, who had nine points and eight rebounds, unveiled a little hook shot from the baseline at one point. … Ricky Hudson led AIC with 18 points.