Minus Daniels, Huskies crush Houston
STORRS – UConn coach Kevin Ollie, when asked about injuries, often responds with a simple three-word phrase: “Next man up.”
Ollie’s team, down DeAndre Daniels for the first time in 50 games, saw Phil Nolan step into the extra minutes available Thursday night and the Huskies didn’t miss a beat.
Nolan scored all of his 10 points in the first half to help energize UConn to a 29-point halftime lead and an eventual 80-43 destruction of an overmatched Houston squad at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies avenged their ugly loss to the Cougars on New Year’s Eve in Houston.
Unlike the last meeting when it fell behind by 21 in the first half, UConn (17-4, 5-3 AAC) jumped all over Houston from the start, leading 18-3 just six minutes in with Lasan Kromah hitting two three-pointers and Nolan scoring twice.
The final minute of the half was a highlight reel for the Huskies as Niels Giffey dunked in traffic, Amida Brimah dunked in a put-back and Ryan Boatright hit a three at the buzzer. UConn led, 51-22, and received a thunderous ovation from the 9,312 on hand.
Game long over.
“It was a great game by us,” Ollie said. “It was a complete game and a collective effort. Everyone stepped up in DeAndre’s absence.”
Nolan’s effort and energy in the paint was particularly encouraging for the Huskies. The 6-foot-10 sophomore reached double-figures for the second time in his career and nearly surpassed his point total from the last four games combined (11).
In one sequence, Nolan scored on three of four possessions, prompting a “Phil! Phil! Phil!” chant from the student section.
“It was a big-time feeling (to hear that),” said Nolan, who also added seven rebounds. “I can’t even explain what it’s like to get that type of support. It was just amazing.”
Knowing Daniels would either be out or limited, Nolan pushed himself harder in practice for the possibility he would see minutes at power forward instead of his usual position at center.
The extra preparation was evident.
“I ran more than usual and made sure to get all the plays down in case I had to play the four,” Nolan said. “I had to be ready, just in case.”
“I think (his first) dunk got him going in the beginning,” Ollie said. “Ryan was punching it, and if you get the big guys in it early, and you get them a dunk, their whole world changes. Their energy goes up.
“You take care of your bigs, especially when they’re running like that. And the bigs will take care of you – start blocking shots, start setting screens.”
Kentan Facey, seeing rare playing time, made the most of his opportunity, chipping in with seven points and seven rebounds, including an impressive three-point play in traffic. Ollie hopes to eventually find the freshman a bigger role.
“He was aggressive,” Ollie said. “He’s been working hard with Coach (Glen) Miller. I try to get him in when I can, but it’s been hard. He’s going to be a great player at UConn. I just tell him to stay strong.”
Shabazz Napier led the Huskies with 19 points, followed by Boatright with 15.
While he wasn’t missed Thursday against a weaker opponent, the Huskies need Daniels back sooner than later. The junior, who is averaging 14.3 points per contest, sprained his right ankle on Saturday at Rutgers and watched this game on the bench wearing a walking boot.
“He’s a competitor and that is something everyone saw at the RAC,” Ollie said. “We tried to get him ready, but he was at the point tonight where he wouldn’t be effective.”
It can be argued, other than Napier, Daniels is the key to any potential tournament success for the Huskies.
The ultra-talented 6-foot-8 forward has recently shown the flashes of brilliance expected from him, scoring 23 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in a win at Memphis and netting a career-high 31 points last week against Temple.
However, sandwiched in-between those games was his most disappointing performance of the season - a foul-plagued, three-point effort (on 1-of-9 shooting) in the loss to Louisville at home.
His offensive presence going forward, especially in the middle of a zone, is crucial for this team.
UConn now has a week off before a big two-game road trip. The first is a huge one at AAC-leading Cincinnati next Thursday followed by a trip to Central Florida on Saturday. It then returns home to face South Florida and Memphis.
Ollie hopes Daniels will be ready for Cincinnati.
“The week off allows us to get him healthy,” Ollie said. “He is a big key to this team and we want to be at full strength when we go to Cincinnati. They’re the top team in the league and we can fight with them. It will be a great opportunity to show what UConn is made of.”
Next man up? It was Nolan on Thursday. Going forward, the Huskies hope it is Daniels. The one they saw against Memphis and Temple.