Huskies take losing streak to heart
Hartford - Alex Oriakhi had trouble sleeping Thursday night.
A team co-captain, Oriakhi knew he had to do something to try to stop UConn's four-game losing streak. More importantly, he had to change the team's mindset.
A conversation with his mother and similar advice from his father and assistant director of basketball operations Kevin Freeman convinced him to hold a players-only meeting prior to practice Friday.
The emotional meeting led to an inspired effort in a 69-46 Big East rout of Seton Hall on Saturday at the XL Center. The Huskies (15-7, 5-5) played without coach Jim Calhoun who's out indefinitely on a medical leave of absence with a lower back condition.
"I can't tell you how pleased I was with what happened," said associate head coach George Blaney.
The Huskies displayed a fighting spirit that has been missing lately. They battled for rebounds and dove on the floor for loose balls. Freshman Ryan Boatright (19 points) and sophomore Jeremy Lamb (17 points, eight rebounds) were the top scorers.
"We were finally having fun out there," Oriakhi said. "Everybody just bought into how we were last year just together as a team. It felt great."
Players pointed to Friday's meeting as a turning point.
"Everybody got what they had to say off their chest and Alex put his heart into it," Boatright said. "Everybody felt like we had enough with losing and needed to take the season around, and it started today."
Oriakhi spoke about the painful feeling of missing out on the NCAA tournament during his freshman year. The junior also apologized for being selfish.
"We weren't playing together," Oriakhi said. "I told guys I'm willing to give up minutes. … I just want to win. When I said that, you could just see it in the guys' eyes that they just bought into it. … The whole game we just said we're all in. I think that really helped."
Of course, the Huskies had to follow up those strong words with action. And they did. Oriakhi led by example, contributing 10 points and eight rebounds off the bench.
They didn't get discouraged after falling behind 11-10. Oriakhi scored six straight points to fuel a 14-2 run. Lamb's two free throws increased the lead to 24-13. They never trailed again.
About a minute later, Oriakhi and sophomores Shabazz Napier and Roscoe Smith all went to the floor in pursuit of a loose ball. Napier came out of the pile smiling and holding the basketball. The crowd roared its approval even though the jump ball went to Seton Hall.
"It just shows that we're willing to do anything to turn the season around," Lamb said. "We really needed a win and tried to play our hardest to get that."
UConn played tenacious defense, including freshman Andre Drummond, who had a career-high tying seven blocks, forcing Seton Hall to shoot 25.9 percent overall. The Pirates (15-8, 4-7), who've lost six straight, missed leading scorer Herb Pope (out with bruised ribs).
The Huskies competed until the end.
With 3:41 left, Napier and Seton Hall's Jordan Theodore both received a technical foul following a verbal exchange after fighting for the ball and Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard picked up two technical fouls, earning an ejection.
"I don't mind getting blown out," Willard said. "I do have an issue when the refs enjoy the blowout."
The win won't solve all of UConn's problems. The Huskies were a bit sloppy offensively, finishing with 16 turnovers and shooting 43.4 percent. They have a daunting road trip ahead, visiting Louisville on Monday and No. 2 Syracuse on Saturday.
But, at the very least, they have some favorable wind at their backs. And they made Calhoun happy.
"He was excited," said Blaney who called Calhoun. "He turned the sound down so he could see the energy level … There was a little bit of jump in his voice that wasn't there this morning or yesterday."
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