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UConn seniors leave Gampel with a win

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published March 06. 2014 4:00AM   Updated March 06. 2014 6:29AM
Fred Beckham/AP photo
UConn coach Kevin Ollie yells out instructions to his team during the second half of Wednesday's game against Rutgers at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs. Behind Ollie is UConn associate head coach Glen Miller, the former Connecticut College coach and Fitch High School star.

Storrs - Coach Kevin Ollie changed his pre-game routine on Wednesday. Senior Night called for a different approach.

Ollie didn't talk about his keys to victory.

His keys sat in front of him in the locker room.

"It was emotional back in the back there…," Ollie said. "We had all the seniors speak. I didn't have any keys tonight. My keys were the seniors. … That's what it was all about."

UConn's seniors delivered in their final game at Gampel Pavilion, leading the way in a 69-63 win over Rutgers in American Athletic Conference action.

Ollie started his four seniors - Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander and graduate student Lasan Kromah - and they all helped hold off the Scarlet Knights (11-19, 5-12).

"They saved their best for last," Ollie said.

Napier rode a red-hot perimeter shooting touch to a game-high 26 points and finished with a career-best seven 3-pointers (out of 11 attempts). Giffey scored a career-high 16 points for the 19th-ranked Huskies (24-6, 12-5), who moved into a third place tie with Southern Methodist.

"I'm definitely proud," Napier said. "I knew we were going to come out and try to play our best game. … It's a special feeling when you're a senior and it's your last home game. You want to give it your all, and I think that's what everyone did."

The Huskies continued their recent trend of grinding out victories. They struggled at times offensively, failing to reach 70 points for the fifth game in a row and were out-rebounded for the fourth time during that stretch. But they're 4-1 in the last five because of their stingy defense.

During one key stretch in the second half, UConn held Rutgers without a point for six minutes, 16 seconds and forced 16 turnovers overall. The Huskies also made some huge defensive stops in the final minutes, including junior DeAndre Daniels' block with 30 seconds left in a four-point game.

The Huskies will need to play better to beat No. 11 Louisville in Saturday's regular season finale on the road. Their odds of winning will vastly improve if Napier and Giffey show up with the same razor-sharp focus and deadly jump shot that they possessed on Wednesday.

There was no hangover from the emotional pre-game Senior Night ceremony, as Napier and Giffey combined for 25 of the team's 34 points in the first half.

Napier was locked in from the start, sinking four of his first six 3-pointers. For a 9:22 stretch, he was the only Husky to score. Then Giffey took the scoring baton, firing in three 3-pointers. The Huskies went 12-for-25 from beyond the arc overall.

Giffey, one of the country's top 3-point shooters at 50.6 percent, clearly enjoyed playing in front of the home fans, including his mother Christine who made the trip from Germany.

"I was really carried by the emotions we had, my mom being here, and a lot of friends here," Giffey said. "I really just felt the love from the fans and all the support they gave me. That was really moving for me."

It was fitting that Giffey, Napier and Olander (four points, three rebounds) - the only three players remaining from a seven-member recruiting class - kept the Huskies in front in the second half.

When Rutgers closed to two (43-41), Napier buried a 3-pointer and Olander scored inside. Giffey's wide-open 3-pointer increased the lead to 48-41.

Both teams endured a long scoring drought before the Huskies eventually went on an 8-0 run to take their biggest lead of the game, 64-53, with 6:08 left. They held on from there, allowing the seniors to walk off the court the last time as winners.

"This group has been so special," Olander said. "We've made friendships that will definitely carry on way past this, way past basketball."

Ollie and Napier addressed the crowd after the game, both thanking them for their support.

In a move somewhat out of character, Ollie told them to come back the second week in April for another celebration.

"I believe we're going to win the national championship…," Ollie said. "I've just got faith in my team."

g.keefe@theday.com

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