"I think they looked at us and said, 'look, we can go inside against these guys,'" Eastern Washington coach Jim Hayford said. "They're a much quicker team, and that's why you had the discrepancy in fouls."
UConn attacked, went to the line 27 times and made 25 free throws on Saturday in an 82-65 victory over Eastern Washington, before 9,274 people, the largest crowd ever to attend a sporting event at the Webster Bank Arena.
EWU got to the line seven times, all in the second half.
"If they can go 25 for 27 from the line every game, they'll be in the Final Four," Hayford said.
Did he have a problem with the officiating? "No," Hayford said, with a sigh. "But thanks for the bait."
UConn's speed and style dictated the officiating, and the pace of the game. The sell-out crowd, in the first UConn home game played outside Hartford or Storrs in 26 years, was quiet for long stretches, and the Huskies (11-1) were sluggish at times. But Shabazz Napier scored 15 points and had nine assists and managing a balanced attack that included Ryan Boatright (14 points), Niels Giffey (13 points in his first start), and, coming off the bench, Omar Calhoun (12 points, six rebounds) and Phil Nolan (11 points and six rebounds.)
"We had five guys in double figures, which I like," Ollie said, "We're not settling for a lot of contested threes. I'm a big proponent of threes, but the right kind of threes. Our quickness and speed is something we've got to exploit."
Tyler Harvey led EWU with 19 points.
UConn, ranked 15th in the major polls, was leading the nation in three-point shooting and heavily relying on it — up until the start of the second half against Stanford on Dec. 18. As a team, they missed 25 of 30 before Calhoun broke out of a long slump by hitting a three with 6:45 to go in the game Saturday. Next time down the floor, Calhoun hit again from three, then Ryan Boatright made a steal, and Napier made a behind-the-back pass to Giffey for a dunk and UConn finally broke it open, taking a 68-52 lead with 6:06 to go.
"Gaps," Ollie said. "G-A-P we call them, game-altering plays. You want to be a guy who makes game-altering plays, and Omar did that with those threes."
For the second game in a row, UConn tweaked its starting lineup, with Giffey starting in place of Calhoun. Amida Brimah again started in place of Nolan.
"I know I've been struggling," Calhoun said. "I couldn't continue to start the way I'd been playing. Coach and I talked. He wanted me to bring energy, to keep getting after it."
Boatright, attacking the basket as he did in Seattle last week, scored six quick points, but the rest of the team was lethargic. Eastern Washington took the lead with a 9-2 run, finished with Tyler Harvey's three-point goal, but UConn went back ahead, 12-11, on Napier's drive to the basket.
As expected, EWU (5-6) took a lot of threes, but made only 3 of 13 in the first half, 9 of 28 in the game. They had an edge on the offensive boards, though, and because of it the Eagles were able to stay close despite UConn's much higher scoring efficiency.
"[The crowd] wanted to cheer but we didn't give them much opportunity," Ollie said. "We played pretty good defensive, but … we gave up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half, which is unacceptable. Then we limited them to six in the second half and ended up winning the rebounding battle (39-36), so that was a good win for us."
UConn broke out of a 23-23 tie with seven unanswered points, five by Giffey, who nailed a three with trademark authority. But the Huskies, ahead 30-23, missed their last six shots of the half and took that margin into the half as neither team scored over the last 2:43.
In the second half, Eastern Washington was as close as six, at 48-42, but Nolan played one of the most effective stretches of his career, giving UConn an inside presence. The 11 points were a career high, he was 7-for-7 from the line and he really got fired up when he scored and drew a foul, completing the three-point play with 8:16 left to put UConn up 11.
"I'm just working, that's all I can say," said Nolan. "I tried to take [not starting] as a positive. It's helped me to remember some of the goals I had at the beginning of the season. Just try to get better, try to improve."
Calhoun, who checked in early in the first half and played 20 minutes, helped ignite UConn's fast break with his rebounding, and aggressive defense.
"Omar and Phil responded well," Napier said, "Omar was in a little slump, and it's good to see him score. When a guy who's in a slump starts to score, it takes our team up to another level. We need Omar and Phil to get where we need to get."