UConn's depth overwhelms Maine in season-opener
STORRS -- Bob Walsh knew his Maine Black Bears, off a 3-27 season in 2014-15, faced a major obstacle against a deep, talented, and inspired UConn team on Friday night. He, however, still held on tightly to his team's best, or to be frank, only hope.
"We were hoping coming in that they would not have found an identity yet, that they wouldn't be together or unified," he said. Then Walsh smiled and laughed. "Boy, were we wrong."
The Huskies, from their first possession (a Daniel Hamilton three-pointer) to their last (walk-on Mike Noyes' jumper), clicked on all cylinders in a way rarely seen last season, winning 100-56 before a charged-up capacity crowd on opening night at Gampel Pavilion.
Yes, the competition left a lot to be desired. However, that does not take away from the positive signs UConn, ranked 20th, displayed.
Namely, their depth and intensity. In the first three minutes of the game, Hamilton and Rodney Purvis each hit threes, Shonn Miller swiped a steal and went in for a dunk, and Amida Brimah swatted everything in sight, recording three blocks. Hamilton and Brimah also connected for a dunk off a lob, a play the Huskies turned to with success all night. UConn pushed the tempo, fought for loose balls on the floor, and battled with a sense of urgency, traits that keep you out of the NIT, a place the Huskies begrudgingly found themselves this past March.
Brimah, a starter on UConn's national championship team two years ago and a two-year captain, already sees a much stronger chemistry with this group.
"It's definitely better, way better," said Brimah, who finished with 18 points, nine blocks (one away from a school record), and seven rebounds. "We just click together as a team. We all got each other's back. We just have to trust."
"We just want to be a trusting team, that's what I believe in. We have to trust each other," added UConn coach Kevin Ollie. "I think we can go far if we can keep that first and foremost in our minds."
The Huskies' two fifth-year senior transfers, Miller and Sterling Gibbs, each had strong outings in their official UConn debuts. Miller, like Brimah, dominated the paint, notching 17 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks. Gibbs, starting at point guard, had a game-high 20 points with four assists. Time is not on their side with only one year of eligibility at UConn, which makes the chemistry they've gained with their team in practice, the two preseason games, and the regular season opener even more impressive.
"We've clicked off the court," Gibbs said. "Sometimes, people may not realize how important that is, for you to actually like your teammates. We really like each other and want the best for each other, so if it's making the extra pass or seeing your teammate make a shot, you're going to be happy for him. That's really helped us out so far."
They're making a tough transition, going from one program to another in just a few months, look easy.
"It's been a challenge, because I was used to everything at the last school I was at (Seton Hall)," Gibbs said. "It was comfortable just because I knew all the plays and everything. At the same time, one thing that coach Ollie told me is that you won't maximize your potential unless you get out of your comfort zone. He's been trying to push leadership qualities, and all those type of things, all the intangibles, so that even past right now, when I leave UConn, I will be successful."
Along with Brimah, Miller, and Gibbs, Hamilton had a very strong game, playing a Scottie Pippen-like point forward. He filled the stat sheet with seven points, nine rebounds, and nine assists.
"Daniel was excellent," Ollie said. "Some of those passes he made were just some great basketball (plays), like he was a point guard."
UConn swarmed the Black Bears to begin the second half, going on a 34-4 run, forming the identity that Walsh hoped they wouldn't find yet.
"I was really impressed with how hard they played, and how together they played," noted Walsh.
It was the type of effort and precision that keeps teams out of that dreaded three-letter tournament.
"This is UConn basketball, we don't do (the) NIT," Brimah said. "We went into the off-season with a chip on our shoulder, not wanting to make the same mistake again."
There's still a very long time before that will be determined. But there's no denying Friday was a good start.