Diarra an energizing presence off the bench for UConn men

UConn's Mamadou Diarra, right, finished with career highs in points (11), rebounds (10) and blocks (2) in just 20 minutes in Wednesday's overtime victory over Columbia. (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)
UConn's Mamadou Diarra, right, finished with career highs in points (11), rebounds (10) and blocks (2) in just 20 minutes in Wednesday's overtime victory over Columbia. (Jessica Hill/AP Photo)

An energetic Mamadou Diarra has injected life into the UConn men's basketball team in recent games.

Shining brightly in his reserve role, Diarra chased down rebounds, finished off strong inside moves for baskets and blocked shots during an overtime win over Columbia on Wednesday.

Only foul trouble prevented Diarra, a 6-foot-8, 217-pound redshirt freshman frontcourt player out of Putnam Science Academy, from making a bigger impact. He finished with career highs in points (11), rebounds (10) and blocks (two) in just 20 minutes.

"I used my energy to help the team," Diarra said Wednesday.

It's just the kind of productive performance from a low post player that's been lacking this season and will earn Diarra more playing time, starting with Saturday's nonconference game against Monmouth University at 4 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford.

"He's an energy guy," junior Jalen Adams said. "He's so good. If you saw him in high school, he just dunks and gets everybody pumped up. We've seen little flashes of it. ... I'm happy for him that he could get that double-double and just prove that he needs to be on the court a little bit more."

This is Diarra's debut season with the Huskies. Bad knees forced him to miss the entire season last year.

Up until the last two games, Diarra was more spectator than contributor on game day. He saw a total of 21 minutes of action in the first five games, compiling just six points and six rebounds.

Since then, Diarra's role has increased. He's averaging 7.5 points and five rebounds in 16.5 minutes the last two games.

"I wasn't really worried about the minutes," Diarra said. "I was just trying to support my teammates the whole time. Coach (Kevin Ollie) always tells me, 'just stay ready, your time will come.' I just took that with a grain of salt and just keep working and then waited for my (chance)."

Diarra got Ollie's attention by giving the Huskies a lift in the second half of Sunday's loss to Arkansas in the PK80 Invitational in Portland, Oregon.

With fellow frontcourt players Eric Cobb (high ankle sprain) and Isaiah Whaley (wisdom teeth) sidelined against Columbia, Diarra became the first big man off the bench.

By halftime, Diarra already had five points, six rebounds and a block. He ended up fouling out with 1 minute, 39 seconds left in regulation.

Ollie said he has found Diarra a home at the center position.

"He came in and sparked us," Ollie said. "He's just all over the boards and he's getting rebounds out of his area, which is special. We've just got to keep him warm and keep him on that bike when he's on the bench. Then when he gets in, he's going to be all over the court. I appreciate Mamadou's effort."

Putting forth a consistent effort has been a team-wide problem. The Huskies are prone to suffering  through long stretches of sluggish play.

They've avoided upsetting losses to Colgate, Stony Brook and Columbia by digging in on defense and hitting big shots down the stretch. But it's a risky route to victory.

Monmouth University (3-4) is another potentially dangerous mid-major opponent. Under former North Carolina point guard King Rice, the Hawks have won two straight Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season titles.

The Hawks embrace taking on a challenging nonconference schedule. This season, they've already played at Virginia and at Seton Hall, falling to both. They lost to Penn in four overtimes last week before beating Albany on Monday to break a three-game losing streak.

"Monmouth is a good basketball team that is playing really well right now," Ollie said. "They have some new players and players playing different roles this season, but they are starting to put it together. ... And they have already played some big games on the road.

"... We're going to have to play a total game — perimeter defense and low-post defense. They are just going to be super-aggressive and our intensity has to be high from the tap. They're going to challenge us at both ends of the court."

The Huskies (5-2) will be shorthanded again on Saturday.

Starting guard Alterique Gilbert, whose left shoulder is still causing discomfort, is likely to sit out the second straight game.

Cobb's right ankle sprain, which kept him out of the last four games, is improving. His status will be determined on Saturday. Starting forward Tyler Polley (sore left shoulder) will be a game-time decision. Adams (ankle) and guard Christian Vital (shoulder) are expected to play.

g.keefe@theday.com

Monmouth at UConn

Location: XL Center, Hartford

Tip-off: 4 p.m. (SNY)

Records: Monmouth 3-4, UConn 5-2

Last game: Monmouth defeated Albany 81-73 Monday; UConn beat Columbia 77-73 (OT) Wednesday

Probable starters: Monmouth, 6-1 sr. guard Austin Tilghman (9.1 pts, 4.4 assists), 6-4 fr. guard Deion Hammond (10.3 pts), 6-3 redshirt fr. guard Ray Salnave (9.6 pts), 6-8 redshirt so. forward Mustapha Traore (4 pts, 5.1 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Diago Quinn (6.4 pts, 4.7 rebs)

UConn, 6-2 grad. guard Antwoine Anderson (10.3 pts), 6-3 jr. guard Jalen Adams (17.5 pts, 4.5 rebs, 3.2 assists), 6-8 redshirt jr. forward Terry Larrier (16 pts, 6.6 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward Tyler Polley (3.6 pts, 1.3 rebs), 6-9 grad. forward David Onuorah (0.3 pts, 3.7 rebs)

Noteworthy: Fifth game in 10 days for Huskies. ... First meeting between the two programs. ... Hawks picked 3rd in MAAC preseason poll despite losing four starters from 27-7 team. ... Losses to Virginia, Seton Hall, UNC Asheville, Penn. ...Top reserve: 6-5 redshirt jr. guard Micah Seaborn (13.4 pts, 4.4 rebs), a preseason All-MAAC first team selection. ... Hawks 2-7 overall in their history vs. AAC teams, beating Memphis last season. ... Turnover prone: Monmouth averages 17.9 per game. ... Hot: UConn bench contributed 40 pts vs. Columbia. Huskies 4-1 when reserves outscore foes. Cold: Defense allowed an average of 84 pts and 48.4 percent from field in last three games. ... Injury update: Alterique Gilbert (shoulder) likely out, Eric Cobb (ankle) and Polley (shoulder) game day decisions. ... Huskies 4-0 at home, outscoring foes by 10.8. ... Up next: UConn plays Syracuse Tuesday in Jimmy V Classic at MSG in NYC.

— Gavin Keefe

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