Brimah, Huskies hold on for season-opening win in Brooklyn
BROOKLYN – The UConn men’s basketball team, after 30 minutes of dominating Maryland Friday night, was about to suffer a disheartening loss in its season-opener.
The Huskies had blown all but one of a 17-point advantage and Maryland had the ball in the hands of arguably its best player in Dez Wells with six seconds left.
Enter UConn freshman Amida Brimah.
Wells started to drive right and instead of heading to the basket where the seven-foot Brimah was standing, he retreated to the top of the key and hoisted a 20-foot fadeaway. His shot was off target and Brimah snatched the rebound and a 78-77 victory for the Huskies before a Maryland-heavy crowd of 12,687 at the Barclays Center.
Brimah’s debut stat line of five points, three rebounds and three blocks may not jump off the box score, but his presence did not go unnoticed.
“What impressed me was his passion,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “His energy is contagious for us and when we put him in, it changes the tempo of the game. His shot-blocking is something we did not have last year. If he continues to work, he will be a special player at UConn.”
One special sequence took place late in the first half when Brimah blocked three consecutive Terrapin shots, with the last one leading to a Niels Giffey three to give UConn a 41-31 lead. One minute later, showing he could keep up in a fast-paced game, Brimah dunked in transition off a feed from Ryan Boatright.
“Coach Ollie told me it was important to keep pace and run,” the soft-spoken Brimah said. “As soon as I saw Boatright had the ball, I ran as hard as I could to the basket.”
While Brimah was somewhat quiet answering questions after the game, his senior captain Shabazz Napier was more than willing to discuss the noise he made on the floor.
“He knows his role on the team right now is to play defense and be a shot blocker,” Napier said. “He’s embraced that role and him being down under the basket is a big difference for us this year. He makes our team a lot better. You could just see that on the last play.”
Napier, meanwhile, finished with 18 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. His night, though, ended on a sour note as he fouled out with 1:30 remaining, thanks in part to an ill-advised technical foul he received earlier in the second half.
Ollie was forced to throw freshman guard Terrence Samuel into the fire to close it out, and he showed some jitters in missing the front end of a one-and-one with 11.3 seconds left.
Samuel did show resolve defensively after the miss, forcing a jump-ball as Maryland was bringing it up the floor. He was one of five bench players Ollie used, along with Brimah, Giffey (13 points, 3-for-3 on threes, all in the first half), Lasan Kromah (eight points) and Tyler Olander (a huge three with 1:53 left).
“We’re going to go game-by-game and assess the lineups,” Ollie said. “I don’t look at it as we have starters and reserves. We have 10 guys who could start and I truly believe that.”
“It’s important for the players coming off the bench to come in and keep up the pace of the game,” added Kromah, who was solid in his UConn debut. “This team has a lot of weapons and when it got tough tonight, we stuck together.”
One cause of concern for the 18th-ranked Huskies was their accumulation of 22 fouls, which led to 21 Maryland makes. It was the biggest reason why the Terps were able to get back in it.
“I told the guys, if we foul, it’s a mistake,” Ollie said. “We fouled altogether too much. We showed America the other side, what can happen if we keep sending a good team like Maryland to the foul line.”
Maryland’s comeback, also aided by five late points from Nick Faust, was nearly complete as Wells started to head to the hoop on its final possession. But one look at Brimah sent him in another direction and UConn in the direction of an opening night win.