UConn feels right at "home" in Bridgeport
BRIDGEPORT – It’s no secret the UConn basketball venues, Gampel Pavilion and the XL Center, have seen better days.
XL, especially, is in need of a major renovation (more than the $35-million the state is putting into it) or perhaps, a replacement.
With that in mind, the men’s and women’s teams each moved home games to Bridgeport’s Webster Bank Arena this season in search of an attendance spark and, quite frankly, to send a message that the current arena status quo is no longer acceptable.
The first test run in Bridgeport, which saw the UConn men defeat Eastern Washington on Saturday, 82-65, was a success on and off the floor.
The sellout crowd of 9,274 set a sporting event record for the 12-year old arena. The fans, while not the loudest gathering around, did show enthusiasm on occasion, most notably when Shabazz Napier hit Niels Giffey with a dazzling behind-the-back pass for a dunk in the second half.
Considering the weaker opponent and with the students on winter break, UConn strategically picked this game as the one to move. As head coach Kevin Ollie noted afterward, the crowd was family-oriented and polite.
“There were a lot of families in the audience that have probably never seen us play before,” Ollie said. “I felt the energy from the crowd. It was just a great family atmosphere.”
It marked the Huskies’ first home game outside of Storrs or Hartford since 1987 when they lost by 17 to Syracuse at the New Haven Coliseum. Ollie said he is fine with playing more games in Bridgeport in the future, though jokingly referenced that game in New Haven.
“Coach (Jim Calhoun) lost at the Coliseum and shut that down real quick,” Ollie laughed.
He had reason to be in a good mood as his team improved to 11-1 with conference play slated to begin on Tuesday. Napier notched a team-high 15 points and nine assists, while Ryan Boatright (14), Giffey (13), Omar Calhoun (12) and Phil Nolan (11) also finished in double figures.
Calhoun and Nolan, in particular, stood out.
Calhoun, entering the game shooting only 34 percent, came off the bench for the first time in his career and made 5-of-9 shots, including two threes to help stave off the Eagles’ second half rally.
“Coach wanted me to bring energy off the bench,” said Calhoun, reaching double digits for just the second time in the last nine games. “It was definitely tough (not starting). Last year, I was not as mature and may not have handled it well. Coach told me he was still going to play me a lot of minutes, though. It was good to talk about it and it felt good to respond.”
Nolan, meanwhile, had started the first nine games at center before switching to a reserve role in UConn’s last contest Sunday at Washington.
He bounced back with eight points against Washington and his 11 points on Saturday were a career-high, including a perfect 7-for-7 from the foul line.
Calhoun and Nolan also tied for a team-high with six rebounds.
“It was a big character game for us and two of the guys who showed great character were Omar and Phil,” Ollie said. “The guys I trust are going to be in there at the end when we need a stop or when we need game-altering plays. That’s what Omar had with those threes.”
The Huskies cut down on their three-point attempts (they only tried 10) with a focus on driving to the basket. As a result, it led to a parade to the foul line, where UConn shot a precise 25-of-27.
“We were outstanding from the free throw line again,” Ollie said. “We’re not settling for the contested threes. I’m a big proponent of threes, but the right type of threes. Now, we’re getting back to basics and we’re getting to the rim. I love us attacking because that allows us to create mismatches.”
Eastern Washington head coach Jim Hayford was impressed.
“If they shoot 25-of-27 from the line every day, they’ll go to the Final Four,” said Hayford, whose team was led by Tyler Harvey’s 19 points. “You can’t defend the free throw line.”
The Fairfield County crowd was impressed, too. It’s a good bet more UConn home games will be up for grabs in the upcoming years while a permanent fix for Storrs and Hartford is being determined. Bridgeport would certainly like more games and expect Mohegan Sun to express interest as well.
“It was great, I think they should definitely do it again,” Napier said of playing in Bridgeport. "It was a great game for the fans and you could tell they were excited. We felt the excitement.”
The record-setting turnout on Saturday can only help Bridgeport's chances for more games in the future.