UConn trio shows signs of shaking off rust in exhibition win

UConn's Mamadou Diarra blocks a shot attempt by Merrimack's Khalief Crawford during the first half of the Huskies' 79-63 exhibition win at the XL Center in Hartford. Diarra had 11 points, three rebounds and two blocks. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn's Mamadou Diarra blocks a shot attempt by Merrimack's Khalief Crawford during the first half of the Huskies' 79-63 exhibition win at the XL Center in Hartford. Diarra had 11 points, three rebounds and two blocks. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Hartford — Exhibition season is rust removal season for this UConn trio.

Injuries derailed Terry Larrier, Alterique Gilbert and Mamadou Diarra last season. Larrier and Gilbert played a combined seven games while Diarra never saw action due to bad knees.

No longer spectators, they're all working their way back from a long layoff.

Monday's second exhibition game was better than the first one not only for the Huskies but also for those three players. It helped them shed another layer of rust in a convincing 79-63 win over Division II Merrimack before 3,861 at the XL Center.

Larrier finished with a game-high 17 points to go with three rebounds, three assists and three steals, Gilbert chipped in eight points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals, and Diarra came off the bench to contribute 11 points, three rebounds and two blocks.

"We were anxious for this moment," Diarra said. "That's the first thing that we said in the huddle today, let's cherish this moment, let's cherish every time we get back on the court. That's just what we're going to keep on doing and working and giving it our all."

UConn dominated its Division II opponent, leading by double digits most of the game. The Huskies attacked inside against a soft zone, scoring a whopping 70 points in the paint and shooting 50.7 percent from the field. They received a big lift from bench players, led by freshman Isaiah Whaley's 10 points and five rebounds in just eight minutes.

They forced 22 turnovers but committed 17 and made just one of 14 three-point attempts.

"It's just a building block for us," coach Kevin Ollie said. "We're going to keep getting better. ... I'm just proud of the guys for the way they handled themselves out there."

There's one more exhibition game — Sunday against Queens College in Storrs — before UConn opens the regular season against Colgate on Nov. 10.

Larrier is starting to look more and more like the versatile swingman that appeared on his way to a terrific season last year, averaging 13.5 points and 5.0 rebounds in four games before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

Instead of settling for long jumpers as he did in last week's exhibition loss to Providence, Larrier spent more time closer to the basket where the redshirt junior could either pull up for a smoother jumper or find a teammate. He converted 8 for 10 shots from the field.

"I'm slowly getting my groove back," said Larrier, who started his college career at Virginia Commonwealth before transferring to UConn. "I'm just looking forward to having a good season.

Ollie envisions Larrier playing both forward positions.

"I'm just glad to see the ball go in for him," Ollie said. "He's doing a great job coming in and working. ... Then just seeing him get in the passing lanes, using his length and being explosive out there. It's just a work in progress. Every step, he's just getting better and better and better. We've got to understand that he hasn't played basketball in two years, pretty much."

Gilbert, a dynamic 6-foot guard coming back from a shoulder injury, was more assertive on Monday. He can break down a defense off the dribble. Late in the first half, he was a one-man fast break, finishing it off with a layup. He continued to attack the rim in the second half and also buried a short pull-up jumper.

While Larrier and Gilbert are expected to be regular starters, the athletic 6-8 Diarra's role is to provide inside support, especially in the rebounding department, and instant energy off the bench. He did just that, scoring six straight inside points in his first appearance. And he avoided foul trouble after fouling out in just six minutes versus PC.

Diarra, who prepped at Putnam Science Academy, is just happy to be on the court again with his teammates.

"Words can't even describe how excited I am right now," Diarra said. "I just try to cherish every day and try to get better every time I step on the court. Last game was my first game back, so I had to get adjusted to the speed and playing with refs again. ... Now I'm starting to get it."

The fact that Diarra shared last season's difficult journey with Larrier and Gilbert made it more tolerable.

"Of course, I didn't want my brothers to be hurt as well," Diarra said. "But we were all together, we all knew when we come back, it's going to be different. We're going to have to make a difference."

g.keefe@theday.com

UConn freshman Isaiah Whaley reacts after forcing a turnover during the second half of the Huskies' 79-63 win over Merrimack at the XL Center in Hartford. Whaley had 10 points and five rebounds in just eight minutes off the bench. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn freshman Isaiah Whaley reacts after forcing a turnover during the second half of the Huskies' 79-63 win over Merrimack at the XL Center in Hartford. Whaley had 10 points and five rebounds in just eight minutes off the bench. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

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