So the UConn men's basketball team had to work for it. In a quick turnaround from their overtime win over Cincinnati, the Huskies arrived in Chicago with some bumps and bruises and found themselves in a physical game. They hit the floor a lot, and the fans were hostile.
The Huskies found themselves trailing at the half, and still down a point five minutes into the second half. Then UConn did what this UConn team does — got up and pushed back.
"It was physical," Shabazz Napier said. "A couple of calls I thought I should have got, but you've got to be tough — it's the Big East. We got more aggressive, and we hit a stretch where we started making shots and we made a big run."
Napier, as usual, led the run and scored 28 points in the Huskies' 81-69 win over DePaul before 8,662 at Allstate Arena. Ryan Boatright scored 17, thrilling a large contingent from his nearby hometown and entertaining them in the lobby postgame. Omar Calhoun, still playing with his sprained right wrist in a wrap, also scored 17 and the Huskies, with a 32-21 edge in rebounds — Napier led with seven — and were not out-toughed by an underdog opponent that meant to do just that.
UConn shot 60 percent from the floor, 30 of 50, including 11 of 22 threes.
"Anytime you win on the road in the Big East, it's a great win," said Kevin Ollie, who earned his first technical foul as UConn head coach during the frustrating first half. "We didn't play defense in the first half; in the second half we got back to our principles."
Those principles began with guards Napier and Boatright turning up the defensive pressure, and that changed the game. The Huskies were trailing 47-46 when Napier, left wide open as Calhoun penetrated to the rim and kicked it out, nailed a three-pointer with 14:47 left to play. UConn began rebounding, and forcing turnovers and an avalanche began. Niels Giffey hit an open three and they led by eight, their largest lead of the game to that point. Giffey's layup completed a 13-0 run and UConn was up by 12.
Eventually, when Calhoun hit a three with 5:58 to go, the Huskies were up 20 and the crowd got quiet.
"Omar is becoming a complete player right before our eyes," Ollie said. "People say he's a scorer, but he's a basketball player. He was sticking his nose in there, getting rebounds. … It started with our guards, on offense and on defense. In the first half, we took too many threes — 14. And we got to the line twice. We wanted to make sure we got to their rim, and in the second half we got to the rim 10 times."
"We'll have two days to prepare," Ollie said, "and then hopefully we can continue to write our story."
That story is one of perseverance, of playing for pride in a season with no postseason eligibility. The story is just about written as an unqualified success, but another surprise would make it sweeter.
There was a time, at the start of the Big East season, when even a win over DePaul could not be taken for granted, but UConn beat the Demons at Gampel on Jan. 8 and, with some ups and downs, has competed in the historically physical league without a classic Big East front line.
Ollie mixed and matched some more, using 6-foot-7 Giffey, who scored 10 points, at center for parts of the game. DeAndre Daniels was in foul trouble and limited to 11 minutes in the first half, allowing the man he was guarding, Cleveland Melvin, to go off a little. Melvin finished with 20 points. Brandon Young, who scored 35 against UConn in January, was held to 13.
Freshman Phil Nolan, who played 14 minutes, also contributed, with two blocks and two rebounds.
UConn led 29-22 after Boatright made a long three-pointer midway through the first half, but then got a little three-point happy let DePaul (11-16, 2-12), which shot 48.3 percent, better than most UConn opponents this season, back into the game.