Ferocious start, strong bench play help Huskies destroy Ohio State
STORRS – Throughout his coaching tenure, Kevin Ollie’s go-to theme when his team has faced adversity is boxing.
With three losses already on their plate, along with an ugly habit of falling behind by double digits, Ollie force-fed his team the importance of being the aggressor over the last three days at practice.
The result on Saturday against Ohio State was on par with Mike Tyson’s 91-second knockout of Michael Spinks.
UConn scored on its first two possessions on powerful dunks by Amida Brimah and Shonn Miller and rode that intensity to an impressive 75-55 destruction of the Buckeyes at a jubilant Gampel Pavilion.
While Ohio State is a name-brand team, this version of the Buckeyes is young, inexperienced, and has struggled to a 4-5 record. It was a must for the Huskies to show resolve following their frustrating loss to Maryland at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. A defeat to a team in the Buckeyes’ state would only do more harm to their eventual postseason resume.
Their response was a 45-24 halftime lead, highlighted by 63.3 percent shooting, 5-of-8 on three-pointers, and 12 assists - a 20-minute span which Ohio State head coach Thad Matta called “one of the best first halves I’ve seen in a long time.”
“I thought we came out and played very aggressive from the start,” Ollie said. “We hit first, played aggressive, and were in attack mode. We had a great game on the offensive end and the defensive end.
“Everyone was punching.”
One of the storylines this season for the Huskies (6-3) is their improved depth from a year ago. While depth certainly helps, it could lead to quicker hooks, different rotations, and a lack of cohesion. Sensing this, Ollie stuck to a seven-man rotation, going with the usual starting lineup (Brimah, Miller, Rodney Purvis, Sterling Gibbs, and Daniel Hamilton) along with Jalen Adams and Omar Calhoun coming off the bench.
Kentan Facey only played three minutes, and Steven Enoch only saw one (in garbage time). Sam Cassell Jr. and Phil Nolan didn’t see any time.
Ollie’s adjustment, one he says is not permanent, was a rousing success.
First off, Calhoun hit all five of his shots (four threes) and led UConn with 14 points in 26 minutes of action. It was Calhoun’s highest point total since December of 2013, leading to plenty of praise from Ollie.
“We go by what we see in practice,” Ollie said. “I just see him being tough in practice, encouraging his guys. He hasn’t been playing a lot of minutes, but everyday in practice he shows up and he gives me two hours. Full intensity, and I wanted to reward him for that.”
His fury was also noticeable on the defensive end, where Calhoun helped hold the Buckeyes to 35 percent shooting, including JaQuan Lyle’s 0-for-7.
“When I focus and play hard on defense, offense comes a lot easier to me,” said Calhoun, a senior. “I feel like the shots that I was starting to make helped the lead expand, everyone started feeding off of it and it helped build everyone’s confidence. Going into halftime, we were real confident, we knew we were going to keep our foot down and not let them come back.”
It hasn’t been an easy ride the last two seasons for Calhoun, who has battled injuries, sporadic playing time, and inconsistent play. He was scoreless in only five minutes against Maryland.
“Recently, I watched a lot of film just from freshman year (he averaged 11.1 points that season), looking at my shot and just seeing the confidence I was shooting the ball with,” Calhoun said. “Today, I wanted to shoot the same kind of way. I feel like sometimes I shoot a little different with my mind and how I am flowing through the shot. Today, I shot it a little different and that’s what I am going to do from now on.”
Meanwhile, Adams, a freshman, continues to impress. He was on the floor throughout UConn’s furious comeback attempts against Gonzaga and Maryland, and earned a team-high 17 minutes in the first half on Saturday. He finished with 11 points, four assists, four rebounds, and only one turnover while displaying a lot of poise at the point guard position.
“I feel a lot more under control, and I’m just taking my time and letting the floor open up for me,” said Adams, whose lay-up in traffic at the halftime buzzer led to a standing ovation. “I’m just looking for my teammates. Once I can get them going, I can get myself going.”
“Jalen had a great game, too,” noted Ollie. “He keeps getting better, and better, and better, right before everybody’s eyes. He’s taking his time on pick-and-rolls, he’s being patient, and finding the open man.”
The Huskies had a five-minute scoring drought in the second half, but shook it off to make 12 of their last 13 shots, ending any hopes of an Ohio State miracle. Overall, five Huskies finished in double figures, with Hamilton falling one point short.
“They shared the basketball, and you shoot higher when you get stops,” Ollie said. “Everyone was attacking the rim. I can’t complain, you know coaches are always going to find something, but I can’t complain about 60 percent shooting.
“Everyone played well.”
UConn’s strong start and equally strong finish sounds like a simple recipe to success. It certainly was on Saturday. The next step is sustaining that - one jab at a time.