Daniels leads Huskies past Iowa State, into the Elite Eight
NEW YORK – DeAndre Daniels’ talent, understandably, is one that many scouts believe will translate to the NBA.
His height (6-foot-8), shooting (44 percent from three) and leaping ability would fit in with any team at the next level. His play this season, however, hasn’t always showcased that potential.
Entering Friday night’s Sweet 16 battle with Iowa State, Daniels, a junior, was averaging only a half a point higher (12.6) than his sophomore campaign. His season has consisted of several head-scratching games, specifically against Yale (0-of-5 shooting, 0 points), Louisville (1-of-9 shooting, three points) and SMU (2-of-10, six points), the latter two resulting in UConn defeats.
In one sequence early on Friday, it appeared Daniels was destined for more frustration and disappointment when he shot a three and hit nothing but glass. However, instead of responding with passive play like in previous tough moments this season, he took a different path, driving to the hoop and playing with the fury his team, notably coach Kevin Ollie, has continually pleaded for.
That aggression set off, arguably, the most impressive and, unquestionably, the most important effort of Daniels’ career, as he compiled 27 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in leading the seventh-seeded Huskies to an 81-76 victory over the No. 3 Cyclones in front of a Connecticut-heavy crowd at Madison Square Garden.
UConn (29-8) is now one win away from the Final Four and will face Michigan State, which defeated Virginia, on Sunday for the right to play in Texas.
A right earned much because of Daniels.
“I just wanted to stay aggressive,” Daniels simply said. “My teammates were talking to me, and it would have never been possible if it wasn’t for my teammates looking for me, and the coaching staff getting me the ball in the right positions. And I was able to knock down my shots tonight.”
“DeAndre’s a scorer, and once you feel that you have that confidence, the next shot’s going to go in,” Shabazz Napier said. “We kept feeding him and he got super hot. We had to cool his hand down.”
Daniels scored four quick baskets to start the second half, capped off by an alley-oop from Napier to open a 42-28 cushion. He then added a three-pointer for a 17-point lead, and the loud contingent of high-paying UConn fans, a factor all night, erupted in celebration.
“He was unbelievable tonight,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He was hitting mid-range shots over extended hands, and got free for a couple threes where I didn’t think we got a hand up. They did a good job going to him. And give Kevin credit for continuing to feed the hot hand.”
Ollie, while acknowledging the ups and downs Daniels has gone through, says his attitude has remained positive, never wavering.
“You’ve got to understand they’re still young men,” Ollie said. “They’re trying to develop and grow. It’s just not basketball. He has life issues and he’s always worked through them.
“He’s been hurting sometimes, but he still is here. He’s still fighting for our team, and there’s been some ups and downs where he didn’t play to his abilities, but at the end of the day, you can always be a great teammate. And that’s what he has continued to do.”
The Huskies may have played their most complete offensive game of the season on Friday, shooting 52 percent from the field, including 47.4 percent from three and a sizzling 90.9 percent from the foul line (19-of-20 in the second half).
Most encouraging was their balance. In addition to Daniels, Napier tallied 19 points (four first half three-pointers), five assists and five rebounds, while Ryan Boatright finished with 16 points. Freshman Terrance Samuels’ emergence continues, as he added three critical lay-ups in the second half to help stave off the Cyclones.
“We just like to manipulate the defense,” Ollie said. “I was looking for the mismatches that we had, and when DeAndre plays like that, it really gives us that X-factor, because I can pick-and-pop him, I can put him on a sweet spot, I can put him on the block.
“And when I put Terrence in, we got three point guards out there. All of them can be facilitators, and then they can be scorers when necessary. When we share the game and we have balanced scoring, we are hard to beat.”
The Cyclones (28-8), winners over North Carolina in the previous round, went down scrapping. Dustin Hogue netted 24 of his 34 points in the second half and DeAndre Kane recorded 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. UConn’s free throw shooting, though, kept them at bay, never letting the lead get under four.
Daniels fittingly iced the win with four foul shots in the final 15 seconds. After his last free throw, the final point of the night for the Huskies, he pointed to the sky. His team pointed to him as the main reason their season continues.
“It’s not about points for him, it’s about getting touches,” Ollie said. “It’s about him bringing energy. When he does that, his talent takes over and when you have that combination, it equals success. That’s what we saw tonight with the 10 rebounds. Those were touches. Deflections are touches. He had two blocks; that’s touches. His talent is very supreme.”
The Huskies left the floor to a rousing ovation from their fan base, by far the largest gathering of the 19,314 in attendance. Many stories were reported this week about the ticket costs (secondary market prices ranged from $600 to $4,000 in the seating bowl) and UConn’s fans were ultimately heard - in the arena and at the ATM.
“We could really hear them cheering for us and we also fed off of them,” Ollie said. “They did a wonderful job.”
“It felt like a home game,” observed Napier. “When you have that crowd behind you, pushing you, good things will happen. That’s what happened tonight.”
It will likely have the feel of another home game Sunday against Michigan State, also at The Garden. They are well aware of the stakes.
“The only thing we’re looking forward to is (our) Sunday matchup,” Ollie said. “We have to stay together and play another full 40 minutes and get the win.”
If the Huskies play that full 40 minutes, and especially if they mirror Daniels' effort from Friday, they will get the win. And then head to Texas.