"Speed kills in this game," Ollie said Friday, after using his own speed to dodge players trying to tackle him at the end of practice on his 41st birthday. "That was the first time, against Washington [last Sunday] that [Ryan] Boatright was attacking, Shabazz [Napier] was attacking. We got to the free throw line 25 times, and we made 22. I think that was an overwhelming factor in that game."
Now UConn (10-1), ranked 15th, plays Eastern Washington (5-5), in a new venue, the Webster Bank Arena, which is expected to be filled to its 9,000-capacity Saturday at 1 p.m. It's a chance for the Huskies, who haven't played a "home" game outside of Storrs or Hartford since 1987, to continue adding to their playbook, using their guards to penetrate as a counterweight to their perimeter game, and to bring their game to the far corner of the state.
"They love us, but they can't always get out to us," Napier said. "So we're coming to them."
Napier, who leads the Huskies in scoring (15.5), rebounding (6.7) and assists (5.6), scored 20 points in Seattle, hitting 9 of 10 from the line.
"We definitely were getting to the line," Napier said. "The court seemed much smaller. Guys were willing to do something different; that Stanford [loss on Dec. 18] put a lot of things in perspective. Guys were saying, 'Maybe our shots aren't dropping, maybe we get to the basket a lot better than we did before.'"
The Huskies proved last week that they can bounce back from a tough loss, and come from behind — they trailed Washington by 14 early in the game. This game, if it goes as expected, shouldn't provide all that much drama. Eastern Washington, out of the Big Sky Conference, has lost three in a row, and comes off a 20-loss season in 2012-13. The Eagles have not played a ranked team in more than two years.
"[UConn] is a very athletic team," Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford said. "They play with a lot of pressure and they play above the rim."
Eastern Washington has some size, with 6-foot-10 Martin Seiferth and 6-7 Venky Jois, but their attack is heavy on three-point shooting — they take 22 a game. Guard Tyler Harvey, 6-4, averages 19.3 points a game.
When UConn agreed to play a home game in Bridgeport, this game was the one that fit the arena's availability, and the new venue figures to make an otherwise ho-hum affair a much bigger event. The building was sold out, except for scattered single tickets, and it will be filled with fans, mostly from southwestern Connecticut, who don't get to see the Huskies play often. It should be a loud crowd.
"It feels like neutral ground right now," Niels Giffey said, "but I'm sure it will be different when the fans are in here."
UConn practiced hard on Thursday, and had a lighter workout Friday afternoon, Napier resting a sore leg over the last minutes. Getting accustomed to the background behind the baskets and the firmness of the rims are the most important things when preparing to play in a new venue, said Boatright, who also was celebrating a birthday, his 21st.
Boatright had been struggling from the floor, especially from inside the three-point line, before breaking out with a 6-for-9 shooting day against Washington, scoring 16 points.
"I felt like once we went down , we turned it to another level," Boatright said. "Whatever it was — speed, heart, will. We had to step something up. Speed evens it out. A lot of teams are bigger, stronger, taller. For us little guards, it levels the game up for us. They're not as fast as us. If you're tall and fast, you shouldn't be here, you should be at the next level."
A lot of things changed after the Huskies lost to Stanford, Napier said, a loss that dropped them five spots in the polls. One of those things was the lineup. Ollie started freshman Amida Brimah at center for the first time, and although he stayed with Omar Calhoun, he used Lasan Kromah at small forward for most of the game, 32 minutes. The lineup Sunday will be a game-time decision.
"I might be tempted [to stay with it]," Ollie said. "I'll sit down with the coaches and we'll evaluate practice and come up with a starting lineup. But if at halftime I see someone not playing, not getting things done the way we want them to get done, we're going to get the five best out there. We're going to be fair to everybody, but we're going to play the best."
UConn begins league play Dec. 31 at Houston, and all of its remaining games, except a home game against Harvard on Jan. 8 at Gampel, will be in the American Athletic Conference. The Huskies have eight games between New Year's Eve and Jan. 30.
"This is the fun part of the season now," Boatright said. "We'll be playing a game every two or three days. Practice is cut down."