Omar Calhoun's season had hit a snag, not unusual for a freshman. There was only one way out of it.
"I got back into the gym every night," said Calhoun, who established a career high with 22 points in UConn's 84-50 victory over Maryland Eastern Shore at the XL Center on Monday. "I was upset with the way I'd been playing."
It was an emotional night for the Huskies and the 8,841 fans in the building, as the victims of Newtown were remembered before the game. Players, cheerleaders, band and dance team members gathered in a circle, holding 26 candles. It was a moving moment, but after the game coach Kevin Ollie called for a "movement" to stop violence. The Huskies hope to visit the Newtown area after Christmas.
The XL Center remained somber as the Huskies turned their attention to basketball. Calhoun scored in double-digits in five of six games between Nov. 13 and 29, but then managed only two points in the past two games, missing 10 of the 11 shots he took from the floor against N.C. State and Harvard. With 10 days between games, and final exams winding down, Calhoun heeded Ollie's admonition — "Don't be allergic to the gym" — and was able to work on getting his shooting touch back for Monday, hitting 8 of 11 from the floor, 3 of 4 on three-pointers.
"Omar had got to where we'd finish practice and he'd think it was over," said Ryan Boatright, who scored 21 points. "We'd tell him, 'If you want to be great, you've got to stay in the gym.' Usually, freshmen come in hungry from the get-go, but then when they have some success, they forget they have to do those things."
It helped, obviously, that UConn was playing an undermanned mid-major opponent. The Hawks (0-10) were playing without their point guard, Kyree Jones, who had a back injury, and despite a sluggish first half, the Huskies (8-2) were able to do whatever they wanted on offense. They hit 33 of 50 shots from the floor, including 10 of 19 on three-point attempts, and had 21 assists on those 33 baskets, which really pleased Ollie, the old point guard.
"I was very happy with the ball movement," Ollie said. "Twenty-one assists and nine turnovers, that's one of our goals. I'll take 66 percent, I'll take a win. We can get outrebounded every game, if we win."
Yes, even Maryland Eastern Shore was able to outrebound UConn, 30 to 26, the ninth time in 10 games that the Huskies have been beaten on the boards.
"When we play better teams, we can't rely on making shots," said Shabazz Napier, who had 11 points and eight assists. "We'll have to rebound, we'll have to do the little things."
The Hawks shot 46 percent in the first half, and with their rebounding edge managed to stay fairly close to UConn, which took a 39-27 lead into the break.
"Our defense was nonexistent," Ollie said. "It was a toughness thing. ... We imposed our will on them in the second half."
Boatright and Calhoun started the second half with threes, and the Huskies went on a 26-6 run, including 15-0 at one point, to break the game open. Boatright, off a steal, dunked it to finish the spurt and give UConn a 65-33 lead. UMES hit just 7 of 24 from the floor in the second half.
"They shot the three a lot better than we anticipated," Hawks coach Frankie Allen said. "Some of that was that we didn't get back in transition, we didn't close out. ... [UConn's] kids play hard all the time, you have to respect that from their coaching staff. We hung in there a little longer than they probably anticipated, but in the second half they turned it up. They have that second gear."
DeAndre Daniels scored 13 points for UConn, again leading the frontcourt offense. It was Calhoun's ability to hit from the perimeter, and mid-range, that had been missing.
"I do different things on the court," Calhoun said, "hit the three, get mid-range shots, get to the rim. I've been able to feel out my game a little bit better."
Ollie was able to use his bench. Freshman Leon Tolksdorf got into the game and made his first career field goal, and ended up playing 20 minutes. Another freshman, Phil Nolan, went 3 of 3 from the floor in 16 minutes.
"I want to use these games to see what we have on the bench, what guys can do," Ollie said. "Everybody's got to be [ready to play] on our team, we're going to need everybody."Copyright © 2015, CT Now