Defense sparks Huskies past Seton Hall
Newark, N.J. - Their road trip had a rocky start.
The Huskies left later than expected on Saturday because of the blizzard. Their team bus got stuck in a hotel parking lot in Hartford. They didn't arrive to their hotel in New Jersey until about 1 a.m. And they had a short night's sleep.
UConn Kevin Ollie made sure his players had the proper mindset heading into the noon time game.
"We put on the board 'No Excuses,' " Ollie said of his pre-game message. "We had a lot of opportunity to make excuses - getting in late, late travel, the storm. I told them we can't control that, but we can control our effort and our energy."
Like their travel plans, UConn's game plan didn't go exactly as planned against Seton Hall. But the Huskies mustered up the necessary effort and energy to score a 78-67 victory at the Prudential Center.
The Huskies (16-6, 6-4) never let those issues impact their play, riding a stingy defense to pull away in the second half.
"Things happen for a reason," junior Shabazz Napier said. "We were stuck. It just happened. It took us awhile to get to New Jersey and get to the hotel. But this team is relentless. No matter what's going on we're going to try our best when we get on the court."
Napier fueled UConn's second half charge, scoring 18 of his team-high 22 points after intermission. He had a terrific all-around game, also finishing with nine assists, a career-best six steals and four rebounds.
Both Napier and backcourt partner Ryan Boatright (20 points) bounced back from sub-par performances in Wednesday's loss to St. John's.
The Huskies did several things well, out-rebounding an opponent (31-25) for only the sixth time this season, converting 21-of-23 free throws and shooting 54.2 percent after hitting a combined 30 percent in the last two games.
"We've got to clean up some things going into Syracuse (Wednesday), but I'm very proud of our effort…," Ollie said. "The game came down to a game of wills and we had the stronger will and it started with those guards."
Ollie's pre-game concerns focused on UConn's slow starts the last two games and his team's tendency to settle for perimeter shots.
Right from the start, UConn showed more life on offense and gradually built a 25-12 lead against shorthanded Seton Hall (13-11, 2-9) which had two players sit out with injuries. Leading scorer Fuquan Edwin played on a sore ankle, but you couldn't tell.
Edwin scored 12 of his 19 points during Seton Hall's stunning 16-0 run. Four UConn turnovers helped spark the surge.
A one-point halftime deficit grew to 43-36 with 17:23 left in the game, and Ollie called a timeout.
"Better turn it around or you're going to get blown out of the gym," Boatright said of Ollie's message. "He just really put it on us."
UConn turned the game around with tenacious defense, allowing only three field goals in a 14:43 span, and an attacking transition offense.
Trailing 46-42, the Huskies seized control with a sizzling 28-8 run. Napier's fast break layup handed them the lead for good, 48-46, with 10:58 left.
With a big lead, the Huskies had a little fun. On a breakaway, Napier tossed the ball off the backboard and a trailing Boatright soared, caught the ball and dunked it home.
"I was kind of nervous because I didn't think he was going to jump…," Napier said. "I just did it and I turned around and he dunked it."
After a long and tiring journey, the Huskies were ready to go home. Before leaving, they talked about how much fun they had during their bus ride here.
"It was a good team bonding experience," said R.J. Evans of Salem.
When the bus got stuck, they got out and had a snowball fight. Napier wrestled with freshman Omar Calhoun.
And they tried, unsuccessfully, to push the bus out of the snow.
"We all looked at each other and said, we need to get in the weight room," Napier said. "We were having so much fun."