UConn picks up crucial win in Big East reunion with Georgetown
HARTFORD – Familiarity was the storyline heading into UConn’s “road down memory lane” Saturday against Georgetown.
That theme of this Big East reunion was symbolic in the Huskies’ vital 68-62 victory at a raucous XL Center, which was sold out for the first time this season (15,564).
First was the job UConn did on the Hoyas’ leading scorer D’Vanuntes Smith-Rivera, who was coming off a 20-point effort in an impressive win at No. 5 Xavier Tuesday. Notably Rodney Purvis, a friend of Smith-Rivera’s. The Huskies held him to 4-of-14 shooting and only 12 points.
Purvis, knowing Smith-Rivera well, had a good idea of what to expect. UConn’s swarming defense frustrated Smith-Rivera throughout, in particular one sequence late. With the Huskies up three, Purvis stole the ball from Smith-Rivera and was then fouled with 17 seconds remaining. Purvis then sunk both foul shots to all but seal the win.
“I knew they were going back to Smith-Rivera, who is one of my good friends, a close friend. He’s a big-time player,” said Purvis, who finished with a game-high 17 points off the bench. “I tried to stay back and as soon as I saw the big look toward him, I knew he was going to pass it to him. So I then went for the steal and was lucky to get it.”
Georgetown’s last dash came to a crashing end when L.J. Peak was called for an offensive foul after running over Phil Nolan while driving to the lane.
How did Nolan, who also put UConn up for good with two free throws with 2:44 left, get in that position? His familiarity with what was coming.
“To be honest, I kind of heard a couple of the players talking about scoring real fast and going to the rim, so I tried to hurry up and get back, and I saw that same guy who said it (Peak) coming right at full speed. (At that point) I was definitely going to stand in from of him,” laughed Nolan, one of the more light-hearted players you will come across.
UConn’s aggression on both sides of the ball was crucial. Despite shooting a meager 19 percent (4-of-21) in the second half, it got into the bonus with 14 minutes left in the half, leading to 20 made free throws in 25 attempts.
Defensively, the Huskies held Georgetown scoreless over the last 4:32, including two missed three-pointers trying to tie. It wasn’t pretty to say the least, but UConn did what was necessary for this important win.
“We shot a low percentage. We had good looks, we just couldn't make them,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “But our defense was strong and that's what we hang our hats on. It was just an unbelievable job by our players.
“Our players stood together.”
The importance of this victory for UConn (14-5) can’t be understated considering this was its final out-of-conference game, along with the NCAA Tournament Committee’s history of being hard on AAC at-large bids (SMU two seasons ago being the glaring omission). The players were well aware.
“The teams in our conference are good, but at the same time, I don’t think their RPIs are really too high, so this win meant a lot for us,” said Sterling Gibbs, after scoring 16 points.
Shonn Miller added 15 points and seven rebounds, holding his own against Georgetown’s 7-foot center in Bradley Hayes (nine points, nine rebounds). Daniel Hamilton didn’t shoot well again (2-of-8), but recorded 11 points, eight rebounds, and three assists.
The atmosphere was reminiscent of the Big East glory days of Patrick Ewing, Chris Smith, Ray Allen, Allen Iverson, and Kevin Ollie, the player. XL Center crowds are often criticized for their aloofness, quietness and emptiness. This day did not fall in any of those categories.
"It was electric,” Ollie said. “The last three minutes, and even when we were struggling in the second half and couldn't make a shot, they stood up and gave us a little lift. I really appreciate them coming out with the storm, we needed them."
"This was a normal Big East game," noted Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "It's what Georgetown-Connecticut's about. I have not known any other atmosphere up here."
It was a day to look back at familiar and terrific memories. But most importantly for the Huskies, it ended with a triumph that will help them going forward.