UConn holds off Harvard, snaps two-game losing streak
STORRS - The UConn men’s basketball team didn’t even try to hide its frustrations from last week’s miserable two-loss trip to Texas.
Ryan Boatright said the Huskies played down to the competition and criticized the team’s effort. Shabazz Napier compared a potential third-straight loss to Harvard on Wednesday to death.
And judging by UConn’s body language as it headed off the floor trailing by five at halftime, Napier’s analogy seemed pretty spot on.
Staring down that third-straight loss, the Huskies, however, were able to turn it around just in time, riding strong three-point shooting (5-of-10 in the second half) and a more inspired rebounding effort to hold off Harvard, 61-56, before 9,218 at Gampel Pavilion.
While the high-powered offense on display early in the season has yet to be found, UConn head coach Kevin Ollie was encouraged by his team’s fight, an attribute missing last week in Houston and Dallas (at SMU).
“It wasn’t a big-time offensive game, but I am very excited,” said Ollie, whose team won the battle of the boards for a rare time, 36-34. “I’m happy for my team. We just grinded it out. We couldn’t make a shot (40 percent), but we stuck together and we were connected.”
The newly unranked Huskies did make eight of 14 from three, with Napier and DeAndre Daniels connecting on three apiece. Boatright and Daniels hit threes on consecutive possessions early in the second half to give the Huskies a three-point lead and Napier (team-high 18 points) nailed back-to-back triples for a 55-47 cushion with 1:30 left.
Similar, though, to every game in the last month, no lead was safe for UConn as Laurent Rivard converted on a four-point play and a lay-up plus a foul in the final minute.
The Crimson, playing without leading scorer Wesley Saunders (knee injury), still had one last chance down three in the final seconds, but Brandyn Curry slipped under pressure and turned it over as he tried to set Siyani Chambers (game-high 21 points) up for a three-point try. Daniels then made two foul shots to ice the win.
“We gave up a couple of bad possessions in the last part of the game, but we just stayed together,” Ollie said. “That last stop is what UConn basketball is all about. We gutted that one out.”
UConn’s three-point shooting was vital as it struggled in the paint with the center combo of Tyler Olander, Phil Nolan and Amida Brimah combining for only five points and six rebounds.
Brimah, however, made an impact in his short stint of action (he fouled out in 15 minutes), blocking three shots as Harvard noticeably went in the opposite of his direction when driving to the hoop. His presence was among the factors that contributed to Harvard's 35.7 percent shooting.
“We’ve got to keep Amida out of foul trouble. We have to get that under control,” Ollie said. “The big fella is working. Every day he has enthusiasm, energy, and he just wants to get better.”
“You can see the fear factor he brings,” added Napier. “Teams don’t like going at him. He makes our defense a whole lot better.”
Daniels, meanwhile, continues to show glimpses of greatness, scoring eight of his 11 points in the second half to go with eight rebounds and four blocks. It was a 20-minute stretch Ollie is desperate to see more often.
“His rebounds were crucial for us because they allowed us to get out on the break and stop the bleeding,” Ollie said. “I always tell him not to settle for average. I believe he can be a big-time player, but he needs to start believing that. Tonight, he started to believe.”
Believing will be critical for the Huskies (12-3, 0-2 AAC), who will play nothing but conference games the rest of the way, starting Saturday night against Central Florida at Gampel. The sooner the Texas trip is totally forgotten, the better. Wednesday night was a good step in that direction.
“We were tired of losing, tired of being down and tired of playing down to our competition,” Boatright said. “We got back to basics in the second half and played together. We’re not satisfied with this performance, but we’re happy to get a win.”
A much-needed one to say the least.