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    Wednesday, February 28, 2024

    UConn men’s notes: Reserves continue to give Huskies a lift

    UConn's Hassan Diarra (5), a key reserve for the Huskies, drives against Iona's Daniss Jenkins, left, during Friday’s 87-63 win over the Gaels in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Saturday at MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

    Albany, N.Y. – They’re ready to contribute whenever asked.

    Reserves Joey Calcaterra, Donovan Clingan, Hassan Diarra and Nahiem Alleyne have come off the bench and made important contributions this season, even more so during the postseason.

    During Friday’s first round win over Iona in the NCAA tournament West Region at MVP Arena, the quartet combined for 26 points.

    When that happens, the Huskies usually win.

    They’re 15-2 when the bench scores at least 20 points, 11-6 when falling short of that mark.

    “I like to think of us as having one of the deepest benches in the country,” Calcaterra said Saturday. “We definitely use that to our advantage.”

    For the fourth-seeded Huskies to extend their postseason run and advance to the program’s first Sweet 16 since 2014, they’ll need their reserves to continue to be productive Sunday against Saint Mary’s in the second round.

    “We know our starting five is going to show up,” Diarra said. “Just to add four or five more players that can either score or defend just brings value to the team. It’s extremely difficult to beat us when everybody’s on.”

    UConn should have a depth advantage on Sunday.

    Coach Dan Hurley regularly uses a nine-player rotation while the fifth-seeded Gaels stick with their starters for the majority of the game.

    Only six Saint Mary’s players saw more than five minutes of action in Friday’s first round win over Virginia Commonwealth. The Gaels received only 13 points from their bench.

    The Huskies will have an opportunity to wear down their opponent and be fresher late in games.

    “We just come in the game and try to provide a spark, whether it’s offensively or defensively,” Calcaterra said. “We just try to give an energy lift and bring some momentum to our side when we step on the court. We don’t try to do too much off the bench. We just try to make solid plays and it’s been working well for us.”

    They’ve done just that in the last three games, with reserves averaging 26 points.

    Clingan had one of his best games of his young career against Iona, finishing with 12 points, nine rebounds and two blocks in 14 minutes against Iona.

    Calcaterra can light it up from the outside. Alleyne contributes on both ends of the court while Diarra is a defensive specialist and provides relief for starting point guard Tristen Newton.

    Hurley’s rotation has fluctuated this season, starting out as nine players before shrinking and then returning again to full power.

    “I want to play nine players in a perfect world,” Hurley said. “I think the mid part of the year when we were struggling, I probably got a little too tight with the rotation, and that was my mistake. Obviously, I learned from it, and I’m trying to trust those guys more. Then we have the ability to wear a team down.”

    Alleyne is only one of three Huskies with previous NCAA tournament experience. He played in two March Madness games while at Virginia Tech.

    “This is my third time here, I know what’s going on in March Madness. Some of these guys don’t know. Andre and Adama, they know what’s going on, so we kind of guide everybody to just play with joy and remember the main goal and remember it’s win or go home.”

    Joey California knows Saint Mary’s

    Calcaterra, whose nickname is Joey California, probably knows more about Saint Mary’s than anyone on the team outside of the coaching staff.

    He’s from Novato, Calif., which is located about an hour away from the Saint Mary’s campus in Moraga.

    He faced Saint Mary’s six times while playing for the University of San Diego, averaging 4.3 points. He’s offered some information to UConn assistant Luke Murray, who’s preparing the scouting report.

    “It’s just a team that has a strong culture and strong system that’s worked well for them over the years,” Calcaterra said. “They really like to slow the game down and make you work on defense in the half court, setting a lot of ball screens. They really just try to take you out of rhythm on the offensive end. So, we have ways to defeat that and work against that.”

    He’s soaking in his first NCAA tournament experience.

    “I’m loving it,” Calcaterra said. “This is why I came to UConn and everything that I dreamed about. So, happy to be here.”

    First time meeting in March

    UConn and Saint Mary’s have never met in any postseason.

    In fact, the two programs have met only once, way back in December 2006. The Huskies earned an 89-73 win in Hartford.

    Randy Bennett, who’s in his 22nd year at Saint Mary’s, remembers that trip.

    “They had their big center, what’s his name, Hasheem?”

    When informed that it was Hasheem Thabeet, Bennett continued.

    “Yeah, I remember that, and they popped us.”

    g.keefe@theday.com

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