Trio of role players help UConn men slip past Cincinnati
HARTFORD – It’s pretty clear at this point, 29 games into the season, that Lasan Kromah, Terrence Samuel and Phil Nolan are not going to lead the UConn men in scoring or appear in many offensive highlight clips.
It hardly means they can’t help out in a big way, though. On Saturday afternoon, in front of a restless sellout crowd at the XL Center, the trio of Husky role players all contributed in a physically grinding and mentally satisfying, 51-45, triumph over No. 11 Cincinnati.
The Bearcats (24-5, 13-3 AAC), who defeated UConn by five on Feb. 6, feature the league’s leading scorer in Sean Kilpatrick (20.5). The senior fought his way through a rugged first half, netting 12 points as UConn held a 26-25 edge heading into the locker room.
Enter Kromah and Samuel.
The duo spent the second half draped on Kilpatrick, forcing him to six misses in seven attempts for only four points. Kilpatrick finished 4-for-16 from the field with seven turnovers.
“They set good screens for him, sometimes even two or three at a time,” Kromah said. “He’s a good shooter, so it was very important for guys to come out and help slow him up. We wanted to limit his touches and make it uncomfortable on him.”
The pressure was relentless and Cincinnati registered only two points in the first eight minutes of the half. UConn (23-6, 11-5) took advantage, eventually opening a 10-point lead when Samuel hit Kromah on the run for a lay-up with 8:40 left.
The sequence was critical. After Ryan Boatright dunked off a baseline drive at the 7:39 mark, the Huskies didn’t make another field goal, yet still found a way to hold on.
“This was a great game by us, not offensively, but defensively and that’s what we hang our hats on,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “To be a championship team, you have to grind games out like this. I thought they did a wonderful job today.”
Samuel, a freshman point guard, hasn’t seen the playing time he hoped for this season, spending the majority of it on the bench. Just recently, his chances have increased and he is eager to make the most of the opportunity. His physicality, especially on defense, fit right in on Saturday.
“I definitely have more confidence in myself and coach has more confidence in me now, too,” Samuel said. “I know I have to go out and play my role defensively, and help the team change the game.”
Nolan, a sophomore center, helped change the game in two ways late. First, he made two free throws to expand UConn’s lead to five with 2:27 left. Then, with the Huskies up four and hanging on for dear life, he took a charge from Kilpatrick at the 33-second mark that helped seal the, to be kind, ugly victory.
Ollie, never shy to break out a boxing analogy, compared the brutality of this contest to a heavyweight bout.
“I told them today was going to be 90 percent punches and 10 percent plays,” said Ollie, whose team was led by Shabazz Napier’s 18 points and 11 rebounds. “There was not a lot of Xs and Os in this game. There were a lot of punches thrown and thank God we threw the last punch and got out with a victory.”
The Huskies’ overall defense was terrific as they held Cincinnati to 27.1 percent shooting. The Bearcats, who received a game-high 13 rebounds from Titus Rubles, were also horrific from the foul line, missing 8-of-21 attempts, including one stretch of four consecutive misses in the second half.
“I told the guys before the game we were going to have droughts scoring, but we can not have droughts on the defensive end, especially with your energy and effort,” Ollie said. “We had no let downs on that part.”
There was one bit of controversy in the second half when Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, reminiscent of Ollie’s outburst against Louisville, stormed down the sideline to protest an out-of-bounds call made by referee Ted Valentine.
The two wound up screaming face-to-face and Cronin had to be separated by his assistants and players. No technical fouls were called and the crowd, uneasy with almost every whistle blown on Saturday, reacted with disgust.
Ollie laughed and offered a “no comment” when asked if Cronin should’ve received a technical or even ejected like he was against Louisville. He was too happy with the win to dwell on it.
“All in all, it was a great statement victory for us, beating the 11th ranked team in the country,” Ollie said.
It was also a great statement by Kromah, Samuel and Nolan, each showing they could potentially play a big role in determining UConn’s eventual destination.