Now that was easy: UConn men blitz Houston, avenge loss
Storrs — UConn insisted Thursday's electrifying effort had nothing to do with exacting revenge.
But the energized Huskies certainly played with the intensity of a team with payback on their mind in their rematch with Houston.
They blitzed the Cougars from the start, building their biggest halftime lead of the season on the way to an 80-43 blowout win in an American Athletic Conference game at Gampel Pavilion.
It was just the opposite of what happened in the first meeting on Dec. 31 when a slow start doomed UConn in a 75-71 loss on Dec. 31.
"We owed them," senior Shabazz Napier said. "We played bad the first game. We knew we were better than we played."
The Huskies (17-4, 5-3) led by as many as 40 points and posted their sixth win in their last seven games.
"We came out and played right out of the gates," coach Kevin Ollie said. "It was a complete game by us.
They dominated in all phases of the game despite being without junior DeAndre Daniels, the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder. He hasn't practiced since suffering a high right ankle sprain in Saturday's win against Rutgers.
"He wanted to play," Ollie said. "He just wasn't to the point where we thought he can be effective. … It was just precautionary reasons why we held him out."
Daniels' absence meant UConn had to lean more on its supporting cast.
His teammates responded.
UConn's young big men showed off their developing skills, as sophomore Phil Nolan had 10 points and seven rebounds and freshman Kentan Facey added a career-high seven points and seven rebounds.
Junior Ryan Boatright finished with 15 points and Giffey, who replaced Daniels in the starting lineup, had 10 points and six rebounds. Napier continued his recent scoring tear, chipping in a game-high 19.
The Huskies used a defense by committee to tame Houston star TaShawn Thomas, who finished with a season-low four points after scoring 23 the last time.
"It was just a collective effort," Ollie said. "Everybody stepped up in DeAndre's absence, so I'm very, very proud of this team."
After Wednesday's practice, Boatright blamed his team's "messed-up mindset" for the previous loss to the Cougars and stated that the Huskies would not take them lightly this time.
Giffey raced in to tip-in the game's first basket and the Huskies were off and running.
"It just set the tone that we were going to be in for a fight," Ollie said. "We stayed in the middle of the ring tonight and didn't get on the ropes like they got us on the ropes in Houston. We were throwing punches."
The Huskies roared out to a 16-3 lead in the first five minutes. Houston called two timeouts to try to stop the avalanche without any luck. UConn made 10 of its first 15 field goals and shot 54 percent in the first half.
Nothing worked for the Cougars (11-10, 3-5), who lost for the fifth time in six games.
Nolan, who came into the game averaging just 3.5 points, was an active presence inside. He scored six straight points, converting a short hook, a strong inside move and tough rebound basket for a 26-7 edge.
"Tonight was one of those nights when I just happened to get the ball a lot more than usual," Nolan said. "Fortunately, I converted."
Perhaps UConn's most lethal offensive stretch came late in the first half, as the Huskies went on a 14-3 spurt to take a 51-22 edge at halftime.
Giffey stormed down the lane, scooped up a loose ball and dunked it home. Napier buried a 3-pointer from the corner. Then freshman Amida Brimah dunked a rebound and Boatright capped it off with a 3-pointer. The Gampel crowd roared its approval.
The Huskies never let up in the second half and improved to 11-0 when out-rebounding an opponent this season, holding a 55-40 edge. They also limited Houston to 27.3 percent from the field.
Any lingering bad taste from the New Year's Eve loss in Houston was wiped away on Thursday.
"I told the guys it wasn't a revenge game for us," Ollie said. "We just wanted to show Houston we were a better team (than last game). That was the only goal. They ruined my New Year's and now we just ruined their Chinese New Year's."
Now the Huskies have almost a week to prepare for next Thursday's showdown at first-place Cincinnati.
Entering Thursday's game, Late Night with the Huskies had been a bust this season. They had lost all three previous 9 p.m. starts, including one to Houston.
But things were vastly different on Thursday. Just like the Huskies vowed.
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