Final trip to New York a rallying point for UConn men

The harsh reality of their postseason ban is really setting in for the UConn Huskies.

Especially now when they'll play in New York tonight for the last time this season, facing St. John's at 7 p.m. at Madison Square Garden.

The Big East Conference game comes almost a month before the conference tournament. Teams will be fighting for postseason position the rest of the regular season, but not the Huskies.

"It's definitely frustrating, especially when you work hard every day ... and you see other schools that are not doing as well as you and they're going to get a chance to play to go to the tournament and we're not," sophomore Ryan Boatright said Tuesday.

"? I don't even like watching ESPN half the time because I see the daggone Journey to the Tourney commercial every other commercial and I get irritated so I turn the TV off."

UConn (15-5, 5-3) is focusing on trying to win the Big East regular season title. The Huskies reside in seventh place, but own only one more loss than first-place Syracuse (7-2).

A victory would extend their unbeaten streak to a season-high tying four games.

Coach Kevin Ollie started talking about the importance of tonight's game in the locker room following Sunday's win over South Florida.

"It will be the last time we go into Madison Square Garden this year with the ban on the tournament," Ollie said. "It's going to be a special game. ? Hopefully, we can come out with a good victory.

"? Not to put any added pressure on them, but it's a great place to play. I wish we were playing in the Big East (tournament). But, unfortunately, because of the circumstances, we're not playing. We're going to relish this opportunity."

The Huskies are coming off a grueling two-game stretch during which they won in overtime against South Florida and Providence on Thursday despite playing far from complete games. They shot a season-low 30 percent in one game and were badly outrebounded in the other.

Gritty defense has saved them, as their two opponents shot a combined 34 percent.

"We haven't put a real whole game together but we're finding ways to win," Ollie said. "This team understands that defense keeps you in games."

Another uneven performance will likely doom them against St. John's (14-8, 6-4), which has won five of its last six games.

St. John's is a matchup nightmare. Multiple players can attack off the dribble, including All-Big East first team candidate D'Angelo Harrison who's second in the Big East overall in scoring at 18.9 per game. On defense, athletic 6-9 freshman Chris Obekpa, the nation's leader in blocked shots, helps protect the basket.

UConn-St. John's games usually are ugly affairs. The team with the most desire, heart and energy oftens wins.

The Huskies are out to make their last trip to New York this season a memorable one.

"It's something beautiful to play at the Garden," junior Shabazz Napier said. "So I expect everybody to go out there and give 110 percent because this is the last time we'll play at the Garden."

Ollie expects his team to play with the same fight it's consistently displayed this season.

As is his nature, he's emphasizing the positives, including still having a shot to win a regular season title in a season without any postseason possibilities.

But Ollie also understands the reality of the situation.

"We're trying to make sure we emphasize that, but naturally as kids or anybody, you have those different enemies on your shoulder, saying you wish you were in postseason and that doubt creeps in. ... And why am I really playing because I don't have a postseason to go to?

"I don't see this team dwelling on the negatives. I think they're dwelling on the positives each and every day and it shows in their play. They don't give up. ... They find ways to win. It's a remarkable trait this team has."

g.keefe@theday.com

 

UConn at St. John's

Location: Madison Square Garden, New York.

Tip-off time: 7 p.m. (ESPNU).

Records: UConn 15-5, 5-3; St. John's 14-8, 6-4.

Last game: UConn beat South Florida, 69-64 (OT) Sunday; St. John's lost at Georgetown, 58-56, Saturday.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-1 jr. guard Shabazz Napier (17.2 pts. 4.4 rebs, 4.1 assists), 6-0 so. guard Ryan Boatright (16.2 pts, 4.6 assists), 6-5 fr. guard Omar Calhoun (10.7 pts, 3.3 rebs), 6-8 so. forward DeAndre Daniels (10.8 pts, 4.8 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Tyler Olander (4.7 pts, 3.9 rebs).

St. John's, 6-2 so. guard Phil Greene IV (8.8 pts), 6-3 so. guard D'Angelo Harrison (18.9 pts, 4.5 rebs), 6-5 so. forward Sir'Dominic Porter (6.8 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward JaKarr Sampson (14.4 pts, 6.6 rebs), 6-9 fr. center Chris Obekpa (3.8 pts, 5.7 rebs, 4.5 blks).

Noteworthy: UConn aiming to equal season-best four-game winning streak. ... Second trip to MSG, losing to North Carolina State, 69-65, on Dec. 4. ... Red Storm's loss to Georgetown snapped a five-game winning streak. ... Harrison second in BE in scoring. ... Obekpa leads nation with 99 blocks. ... Series: St. John's leads, 34-28, winning two of the last three. UConn 11-12 vs. St. John's at MSG. ... Sampson leads BE frosh in scoring and rebounding. ... Hot: Napier averaged 21 pts, 5 rebs, 3.5 assists and 2 steals in last two games. Cold: UConn foes shooting 34.3 percent in last two games. ... Injury update: St. John's starting guard Jamal Branch (knee) doubtful. ... Up next: UConn visits Seton Hall in Newark, N.J., Sunday.

- Gavin Keefe

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