The Huskies stayed a step ahead of their competition — but just a step ahead. Like a runner in a road race who wanted company, rather than a great finishing time, they never did pull away from New Hampshire.
"Whatever the competition is, that's the way we've been playing," said Ryan Boatright, who scored 19 points in UConn's 61-53 victory Thursday night over New Hampshire before 8,705 at the XL Center. "If we're not playing a 'known' team, we come out flat. If we were playing a team like Michigan State, we come out on fire."
"We're going to learn to play the same way all the time, but we've got a young team right now."
The Huskies (6-1) have been dwelling on positives under their new coach, Kevin Ollie, and he again kept it upbeat, despite the unexpected hard time in beating a mid-major opponent that came in with a three-game losing streak.
"I'm not having a pity party," Ollie said. "We got a good win, I'm not apologizing for it. I like being 6-1."
But the need for some things to be tightened up between here and the Huskies next big challenge, against 18th-ranked North Carolina State at Madison Square Garden next Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic, was obvious.
"We had 13 turnovers against a team that didn't pressure us that much," Ollie said. "We have to shoot better — 36.8 percent is not good. We missed six free throws in the first half, and those are momentum killers."
The Huskies did outrebound an opponent for the first time, 43 to 40, although Tyler Olander was again limited by foul trouble. DeAndre Daniels had 10 rebounds to go with seven points. Omar Calhoun had 16 points and eight rebounds.
"We just boxed out better," Daniels said. "Coach has been telling me every day, 'Rebound, your offense will come — just rebound.'"
And UConn did play tough enough defense to keep New Hampshire from shooting any better. The Wildcats were 19 of 62 from the floor.
"They had to shoot that bad for us to win," Ollie said.
UConn started this season with that signature win in Germany over Michigan State, ranked 14th at the time. Against lighter competition since, each game has been something of a struggle, but when the Huskies jumped out to an 11-3 lead Thursday, getting four steals in the opening minutes, the run capped by Daniels' put-back with 15:58 to go in the first half, it looked like this would be the night for a blowout.
But the Huskies, who made eight of their last nine three-point attempts in the win over Stony Brook last Sunday, could not hit from long-range Thursday — they went 1 of 14 on threes.
"They were contested threes," Ollie said. "We didn't get those clean looks off penetration that we got in the Stony Brook game."
Slowly, New Hampshire (2-4) crept back in, although the 'Cats never did take the lead. UConn led 25-18 at halftime.
In the second half, Boatright hit a jumper to stretch out UConn's lead to 36-26, but the Wildcats, with Ferg Myrick (20 points) and Chris Pelcher (16) making just enough shots, pulled within four points on several occasions.
When Calhoun completed a three-point play with 1:42 left, the Huskies had their biggest lead at 57-46, but New Hampshire responded with seven straight points, aided by two UConn turnovers and a three-pointer from Jordan Bronner, to pull within four. Two free throws each from Boatright and Calhoun finally sealed this one for UConn.
"Our kids gave a great effort," New Hampshire coach Bill Herrion said. "We just didn't make those one or two shots you needed at the right time. In a game like this, the discrepancy is usually at the foul line, and we were outscored by 10 at the line tonight."
The Huskies made 18 of 27 at the line, nine of their last 10. They hit 21 of 57 from the floor. Only Boatright, 5 of 10 from the floor and 9 of 11 from the line, had the touch. Calhoun hit 8 of 11 from the line. Even Boatright and Calhoun, though, were a combined 0 of 8 on threes.
"I had an OK game," Boatright said. "I played better offensively than I've been playing."
Ollie was pleased with the way Boatright got to the line, found cracks in the defense and had only one turnover. He liked Calhoun's rebounding. Tyler Olander had eight points and four rebounds, but was limited by foul trouble to 16 minutes. Shabazz Napier, who hit UConn's only three-pointer, did not have a second-half surge this time — he finished with only five points, 16 below his average.
"If I knew the answer, I'd have a lot of people on my couch and I'd be a psychiatrist," Ollie said.
It was Daniels who summed up a lethargic UConn night most succinctly: "We got the win," he said, "but it was a bad game."