'Old man' Evans provides a lift

UConn coach Kevin Ollie gestures from the sideline during the first half of the No. 23 Huskies' 67-49 victory over Vermont on Tuesday night at Gampel Pavilion.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie gestures from the sideline during the first half of the No. 23 Huskies' 67-49 victory over Vermont on Tuesday night at Gampel Pavilion. Jessica Hill/ AP Photo

Storrs - His UConn teammates love to give veteran R.J. Evans a hard time about his age.

"Every day they ask me if I signed up for AARP yet," Evans said with a laugh.

The oldest Husky at the age of 22, Evans is playing like he dipped his water bottle into the Fountain of Youth.

For the second straight game, Evans - a Norwich Free Academy graduate from Salem - came off the bench to spark UConn.

Evans contributed 11 points, three rebounds and two steals in 17 minutes in a 67-49 victory over Vermont at Gampel Pavilion in No. 23 UConn's first game as a ranked team this season.

The Huskies (2-0) relied on a balanced attack. Junior Shabazz Napier had a team-high 13 points - all in the second half - while freshman Omar Calhoun added 12 and junior Tyler Olander contributed nine points, nine rebounds, four blocks and four assists.

With jet lag a concern coming off an exhausting trip to Germany where they beat Michigan State on Friday, coach Kevin Ollie dipped deeper into his bench. Freshmen Leon Tolksdorf and Phillip Nolan saw their first action of the season.

Evans injected energy when he entered the game at the 14:07 mark, helping Huskies gradually build a lead. His driving basket put them in front for good, 11-10. UConn extended the gap to by nine (32-23) at intermission and led by as many as 20 in the second half.

Evans, who's attending graduate school after playing at Holy Cross and earning his undergraduate degree, has quickly adapted to his new surroundings. He's earned the respect of teammates and coaches.

In a 66-62 win over Michigan State in Friday's season opener, Evans played a solid 28 minutes, finishing with six points. He didn't miss a shot against Vermont, going 5-for-5 from the field and 1-for-1 from the foul line.

But statistics don't reveal that impact that he's had through two games. Ollie called Evans a "stabilizer."

"I know what I'm going to get from R.J," Ollie said. "I'm going to get intensity. I'm going to get him to play hard. I'm going to get him to play unselfishly.

"And he's a grown man. He's been through this before. And he's on a big stage now and I think he's relishing the moment. It's just his time to play."

The Huskies have embraced their bearded teammate.

"We call him Uncle Phil, because he looks like Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air," Olander said.

Evans doesn't mind. He's happy to be making a contribution. It's a different role than he had at Holy Cross. Evans started 88 career games for the Crusaders and averaged 29.2 minutes per game.

"It's not much of an adjustment," Evans said. "It's going out playing basketball, a game that I love. I'm a team player, so it doesn't matter if I go in or play two minutes or 30 minutes, I'm going to play hard and hope my team wins."

To stay on the court at UConn, he has to play defense. And, so far, Evans, a rugged 6-foot-3, 210 pound guard, held his own in that department. The Huskies are building an identity around tenacious defense.

UConn sent Vermont into a deep freeze. The Catamounts (1-1) shot just 30 percent from the field.

The Huskies showed improvement in a number of areas in the second half. Napier finally started attacking offensively. He scored eight of UConn's first 11 points after intermission to push the lead to 43-29. The Huskies maintained a double digit lead the rest of the game.

"I was kind of mad at myself," Napier said. "(Coach Ollie) did saying something to me (at halftime), but the fire was already lit under me before."

Rebounding improved, but the Huskies still lost the battle of the boards, 39-32. They'll have to turn that number around to have a shot at winning the U.S. Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. They open up against Wake Forest on Friday.

g.keefe@theday.com

UConn's Shabazz Napier, left, steals the ball from Vermont's Josh Elbaum during the first half of Tuesday night's game at Gampel Pavilion. The No. 23 Huskies beat the Catamounts 67-49.
UConn's Shabazz Napier, left, steals the ball from Vermont's Josh Elbaum during the first half of Tuesday night's game at Gampel Pavilion. The No. 23 Huskies beat the Catamounts 67-49. Jessica Hill/AP Photo
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