Published January 09. 2014 4:00AM Updated January 09. 2014 6:24AM
Storrs - The weight of a two-game losing streak threatened to crush UConn on Wednesday.
The Huskies stumbled through some awful stretches in the first half, committing turnover after careless turnover against a Harvard team riding a nine-game winning streak. They appeared in jeopardy of suffering another dismal defeat.
"We played like we had too much on our shoulders," senior Shabazz Napier said.
Until coach Kevin Ollie delivered a few necessary words of wisdom.
"I just told the guys to relax at halftime and play the game," Ollie said. "If you win or lose, you just play together and play relaxed. When you play relaxed, you have a better opportunity to play to your strengths."
UConn responded, playing inspired defense and even controlling the boards while overcoming a five-point halftime deficit and securing a 61-56 victory at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies (12-3) held the Crimson (13-2) to just 35.7 percent from the field, including an icy 8-for-30 in the second half.
The Huskies couldn't exhale until forcing a turnover in the closing seconds. Junior Ryan Boatright forced Brandyn Curry into a bad pass and DeAndre Daniels intercepted the ball and then converted two free throws with 1.6 seconds left to close out the scoring.
The victory came on the heels of consecutive road losses at Houston and SMU in American Athletic Conference play.
"That was definitely a must win," said Boatright who had 14 points. "If we lost three straight, it would have been terrible for us. … For us to get that win, it gives us our confidence back and gives us our swagger back and just gets us back on the positive end of things."
Ollie had to settle down his Huskies after a first half that saw them commit 11 turnovers. Harvard led 31-26 at the break playing without its leading scorer Wesley Saunders (sprained knee).
Their transformation began at the start of the second half.
Boatright and Napier (18 points, seven rebounds) attacked the basket. The Huskies rebounded as a team, helping to jump-start a once stagnant offense. They won the battle of the boards (36-34) for only the sixth time this season - all in wins. Only four of their 15 turnovers came in the second half.
"They came out ready to play and wanted to beat us," Boatright said. "Once we went back in the locker room, we knew that we took their best punch and we had to come out with a whole another demeanor from the jump."
Ollie added: "They relaxed in the second half. They started playing and pushing the ball. You could see the energy and passing ability and then we started rebounding."
UConn received contributions for a variety of sources. Daniels had 11 points, eight rebounds and a career-high tying four blocks. In his first start, Lasan Kromah chipped in nine points and five rebounds and freshman Amida Brimah (three blocks, four rebounds) was a factor inside until fouling out.
Boatright's two free throws with 14:36 left started a decisive 11-2 run that put UConn in front for good. Harvard lost its offensive rhythm, converting only 3 of its first 22 attempts in the second half.
But the Huskies never felt comfortable, even after Napier buried consecutive 3-pointers to increase the lead to 55-47 with 1:30 remaining.
A couple of dumb fouls and missed free throws kept the Crimson within reach. Laurent Rivard had a four-point play and three-point play in a span of 18 seconds and Siyani Chambers (21 points) scored to cut the deficit to three.
When Niels Giffey traveled after catching an inbounds pass, Harvard set for a potential game-tying basket with nine seconds left.
The Huskies weren't about to let this game slip away. They won despite shooting just 27 percent in the second half.
"It wasn't a big time offensive game, but I'm excited," Ollie said. "I'm happy for my team. … We gave up a couple of bad possessions the last part of the game, and they just stayed together. That last stop is what UConn basketball is all about. We gutted that one out."