UConn finishes strong

Phil Nolan of UConn, right, and Ognjen Milijkovic of Eastern Washington battle for a rebound in the second half of Saturday's game at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport.
Phil Nolan of UConn, right, and Ognjen Milijkovic of Eastern Washington battle for a rebound in the second half of Saturday's game at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. Fred Beckham/AP photo

Bridgeport - During his short coaching career, Kevin Ollie has never hesitated to make a change in the starting lineup.

He doesn't worry about possibly upsetting a player's psyche. Plus, he's puts more emphasis on the players on the court late in a game than at the opening tip.

"I told you over and over again, it's the guys that I trust that are going to play at the end of the game," Ollie said.

Sophomores Omar Calhoun and Phil Nolan, two players who lost their starting jobs, were on the court during the pivotal minutes of Saturday's game against Eastern Washington, helping No. 15 UConn pull away for an 82-65 victory in the program's first ever game at Webster Bank Arena.

Both players responded well to their demotions.

Coming off the bench for the first time in his career, Calhoun busted out of his slump, contributing 12 points on five-for-nine shooting and adding a team-high tying six rebounds. Nolan turned in his second straight strong performance as a reserve after starting the first 10 games, finishing with a career-high 11 points and six rebounds.

"It's not about who's starting, it's about who's taking care of their minutes," Ollie said. "Omar came in and finally got his shot going and hit two threes and played very well. It was a big character game for us. And two of the guys who showed great character were Omar and Phil."

Up until Saturday, Calhoun started the first 40 regular season games of his career. But he struggled mightily lately, shooting just 28 percent (10-for-36) in the last five games.

Ollie informed Calhoun a few days ago about the move, giving senior Niels Giffey his first start of the season.

Calhoun completely understood the decision.

"It definitely means something," Calhoun said of starting. "But I know I've been struggling. He's working with me. Obviously, you can't start someone playing the way I've been playing. He just told me he's not going to start me but to just bring that energy, get it going, and be aggressive.

"We had a good talk about it and everything was fine."

Both Calhoun and Nolan followed Ollie's advice, as they ignited a decisive run that allowed the Huskies (11-1) to finally shake the Eagles (5-6) about midway through the second half. Up until then, UConn played well only in spurts, building a 30-23 halftime lead.

Holding a 48-42 advantage, the Huskies went on a 20-10 spurt. An energetic Nolan, a 6-foot-10 forward, scored five straight points on his first natural 3-point play this season and dunk off a nice pass from Napier.

"I just want to be more aggressive," Nolan said. "I might have lost that a few games, but I definitely started to think about it a lot more and attack the rim every time I get the ball."

About a minute later, Calhoun buried the first of two straight 3-pointers. He entered the game shooting 29 percent from beyond the arc,

"I felt confident because I got in the gym and I was able to get a lot of shots up and I knew what I had to do," Calhoun said.

Napier (15 points, nine assists), one of five Huskies to score in double figures, set up Giffey (13 points) for a dunk for a 68-52 lead with 6:06 remaining.

The Huskies led by as many as 19 down the stretch. After a slow start, they won the rebounding battle, 39-36.

"It's about our rebounding," Ollie said. "When we rebound, we can use our speed, and our speed can go out there and dictate the game."

Throughout the game, the Huskies continually attacked the basket, earning trips to the foul line where they converted 25 of 27. They took a season-low 10 3-pointers, making three. Junior Ryan Boatright added 14 points.

Overall, Ollie was happy with his team's performance.

"We could have been a little more solid, but I really appreciate my team and their effort," Ollie said.

Now UConn opens American Athletic Conference play with a two-game road trip to Texas, playing Houston Tuesday and SMU Saturday.

If Calhoun and Nolan continue to play well, the Huskies will be tough to beat.

"We need Omar and Phil to get to where we want to go, so it was good to see those guys do well," Napier said.

g.keefe@theday.com

Shabazz Napier of UConn drives past Parker Kelly and Venky Jois, right, of Eastern Washington in the second half of Saturday's game at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. No. 15 UConn won 82-65.
Shabazz Napier of UConn drives past Parker Kelly and Venky Jois, right, of Eastern Washington in the second half of Saturday's game at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport. No. 15 UConn won 82-65. Fred Berkham/AP photo
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