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Defense holds the key as UConn men prepare for Colorado

Rest assured, UConn will pack its security blanket for its trip to Iowa.

The Huskies go nowhere without their tenacious defense, which they've used to blanket opponents and cover for their offensive lapses this season.

It's been as reliable as the sunrise.

For ninth-seeded UConn to beat No. 8 Colorado in an NCAA tournament opener on Thursday at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines (1:30 p.m., TNT) and advance in the South Region, it will have to wrap up the Buffaloes, who average 76 points per game.

"I think our style travels very, very well because we play defense," coach Kevin Ollie said Sunday after beating Memphis for the American Athletic Conference tournament championship in Orlando, Fla.

"Coach (Jim) Calhoun built it in us. You play defense, and that allows us to win championships, and that's what we hang our hats on at the University of Connecticut. And I think that travels well. No matter where we're at, we're going to play defense, we're going to give our offense a chance to step up."

That certainly was the case in the AAC tournament, where the Huskies cranked up the intensity and defensive pressure to win three straight and capture the title.

Cincinnati, Temple and Memphis shot a combined 37.1 percent. The scoring average (72.3 points) in those three games is inflated because the Cincinnati game went four overtimes and ended up 104-97. Temple (62) and Memphis (58) were both held under their averages.

In the championship victory, a smothering defense helped the Huskies race out to an early double digit lead, as the Tigers went 1-for-14 during one brutal stretch and shot 23.1 percent in the first half (6-for-26), finishing at 37.5 percent overall. It also generated some offensive scoring opportunities.

"It's really been our focus all year, just locking down on defense, and getting stops and stringing together stops in a row," forward Shonn Miller said. "We did a good job of that. Then, once you get the stop, we got the rebound and pushed (the ball)."

Gritty defense is one of the few things that UConn could count on during the regular season. The Huskies rank fourth in the nation in field goal percentage defense at 38.2 and 12th in scoring defense (63.1 points).

"One thing we did the whole season, we played defense," Ollie said. "Our offense has been sporadic a little bit. ... Our defense always stayed pat."

Any deep NCAA tournament run will require a tremendous defensive effort. If UConn beats Colorado, it next would likely play Kansas, the top-seeded team in the tournament field, on Saturday.

The value of playing disruptive team defense, especially during postseason, isn't lost on the Huskies, who made that the program's identity and mission during Calhoun's Hall of Fame tenure. He demanded that his players challenge every shot, stay connected and play as a cohesive unit.

Every Husky that's come through the program has quickly learned to embrace playing hard on both ends of the court, or end up with a seat on the bench.

Ollie, a former player under Calhoun, has found success as a head coach with the same mindset.

Take the 2014 national championship season.

With Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright harassing perimeter players and intimidating shot-blocking big man Amida Brimah patrolling under the basket, the Huskies built a tough-to-penetrate defensive wall. They limited Florida and Kentucky to 53 and 54 points, respectively, in the national semifinal and final.

Without the willingness to put in the hard work and make sacrifices, UConn would likely have only three national titles instead of four.

Boatright was a prime example.

"Boatright came to me before one practice before the tournament and was like, 'Coach, I just want to play defense,'" Ollie said. "I was like, 'what?' I just never heard Boat say that. ... But that was like the mindset that we had."

Red-hirt junior Rodney Purvis is this team's designated stopper, usually covering the opposing team's top scorer. In the semifinal win over Temple, he helped contain Quenton DeCosey, who went just 4-for-17 from the field and scored 14 points after averaging 19 points in the previous two meetings — both Temple wins. He also limited Ricky Tarrant Jr. of Memphis to only 11 points.

"Rodney is doing a beautiful job," Ollie said. "He's really given us that ball pressure and kind of cut that head off the snake."

Brimah is still protecting the rim, and Miller has perfected the art of drawing a charge, leading the team in that department. Hamilton has come along way as a defender, cutting down on his lapses that earned him on a seat on the bench earlier this season.

Other Huskies have caught the defensive fever, too.

Everything seems to be coming together at the perfect time.

"I think we're playing our best basketball right now," Ollie said. "We're clicking. We're playing great defense."

g.keefe@theday.com

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