Purvis honors friend's memory in UConn's Maui Invitational opener
Monday's game against Oklahoma State was supposed to be a joyous occasion for Rodney Purvis.
When the Maui Invitational pairings were announced last summer, Purvis was thrilled to find out that he would be playing against his close friend Tyrek Coger, who lived with the UConn guard's family for a period of time in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Then tragedy struck on July 21.
Coger collapsed following a team workout at Oklahoma State and later passed away. Purvis heard about the shocking news from his mother, Shanda McNair.
As he's done all season, Purvis will wear Coger's name on his sneakers and his friend's number on his UConn jersey when he takes the floor against Oklahoma State Monday to kick off the three-day Maui Invitational in Hawaii. Game time is 9 p.m. at the Lahaina Civic Center.
It is expected to be an emotional night for both Purvis and Oklahoma State. His mother and Coger's mother will be in attendance.
"Any moment around him was great," Purvis said earlier this season. "There was never a dull moment with him. ... He was the center of attention anywhere he went. He was just a great soul."
To pay tribute to his godbrother, Purvis changed his jersey number from 44 to 15 this season. They both attended and were teammates at Upper Room Christian Academy in Raleigh. Coger never got a chance to play at Oklahoma State.
"I just wanted to feel like that he's with me all the time," Purvis explained about his number change. "You just try to find any little way to just keep him remembered. ... I just wanted to wear his number for him because he didn't get a chance to play.
"This is my senior year and I just figured why not do it. I kind of thought about with Kemba (Walker) wearing 15, but it's bigger than that. ... I'm not trying to step on his toes by trying to wear his number at all. It's just definitely for my brother. I lost somebody very close to me. Me and my mom just felt it would be a good idea."
The loss of the 22-year-old Coger, who attended Cape Fear (N.C.) Community College before moving on to Oklahoma State in Stillwater, has had a big impact on Purvis.
Last month, coach Kevin Ollie called Purvis "a changed man." Purvis is putting in extra work, on and off the court.
"I don't know the tragedy of his godbrother dying or anything like that has got anything to do with it," Ollie said. "I know that was tough for him to go through that. A lot of people can fold under those circumstances and under that adversity. But I think it made him better because he's not taking each day for granted. He's trying to get whatever he can get out of those 24 hours.
"I'm very proud of him. A lot of people can give in in that situation. It's a tough situation. But he's holding it together and he's finding a positive in it."
The Huskies (1-2) are battling through a different kind of adversity. They suffered surprising home losses to Wagner and Northeastern to start the season before rebounding with a 65-62 victory at Loyola Marymount Thursday in Los Angeles. They're also dealing with injury issues. Freshman Alterique Gilbert, who dislocated his left shoulder in the last game, will be a game-time decision. Freshman reserve Mamadou Diarra (sore knees) still hasn't played.
A lack of depth will hurt the Huskies in the three games in three days format.
UConn has to slow down high-scoring Oklahoma State, which averaged 107 points in wins over Campbell, Central Arkansas and New Orleans. Guards Jawun Evans (23.3 pts) and Phil Forte III (22.0), fuel the attack.
A shootout would certainly favor the Cowboys. The Huskies have yet to score more than 65 points in a game but should benefit from the faster pace than previous games.
Having Purvis return to top form certainly would help. The team's leading returning scorer at 12.8 points per game, he has underachieved so far this season. He's averaging just 5.7 points and shooting 28 percent (7-for-25) from the field.
The Huskies have enjoyed success competing in the Maui Invitational, winning the event in 2005 and 2010. This year's loaded field features three teams ranked in the top 10 — No. 4 Oregon, No. 5 North Carolina, No. 9 Wisconsin — in last week's Associated Press poll as well as Tennessee, Georgetown and Chaminade.
UConn will play either North Carolina or Chaminade Tuesday.
UCONN VS. OKLAHOMA STATE
Location: Lahaina Civic Center, Maui
Tip-off: 9 p.m. (ESPNU)
Records: UConn 1-2, Oklahoma State 3-0
Last game: UConn won at Loyola Marymount, 65-62, Thursday; Oklahoma State beat New Orleans, 117-72, Wednesday.
Probable starters: UConn, 6-3 so. guard Jalen Adams (11 pts, 4 assists), 6-4 r-sr. guard Rodney Purvis (5.7 pts, 3.3 rebs),r-so. forward Terry Larrier (16.7 pts, 5.7 rebs), 6-10 sr. forward Kentan Facey (2.3 pts, 3.3 rebs), 7-0 sr. center Amida Brimah (6 pts, 7.3 rebs, 4.3 blks)
Oklahoma State, 6-1 so. guard Jawun Evans (23.3 pts, 6.3 assists), 5-11 r-sr. guard Phil Forte III (22 pts), 6-6 fr. guard Lindy Waters III (8 pts, 3 rebs), 6-8 sr. forward Leyton Hammonds (7.7 pts, 7.3 rebs), 6-9 jr. forward Mitchell Solomon (2.7 pts, 2.3 rebs)
Noteworthy: First of three games in Maui Invitational. ... Huskies 8-1 all-time in tourney, placing 5th in 2000 and winning titles in 2005 and 2010. ... Series: UConn lost only meeting, 80-64, in 1970 Bayou Classic in La. ... Huskies 27-18 all-time vs. Big 12 teams. ... First-year coach Brad Underwood, who led Stephen F. Austin to 3 straight NCAA trips, took program that went 12-20 last season. ... Cowboys hit over 100 pts in every game, averaging 107. Out-rebounding foes by 13.3. Defense forces 20 turnovers per game. ... Top reserve: 6-6 r-jr. forward Jeffrey Carroll (18.7 pts, 8 rebs). ... Injury update: Fr. guard Alterique Gilbert (shoulder), fr. Mamadou Diarra (knees) out. ... Ollie needs two wins to reach 100 in his career. ... Hot: Brimah's career FG percentage (66) highest in UConn history. Cold: Huskies shooting 39.1 overall, 27 percent from three. ... Up next: UConn plays either No. 5 North Carolina or Chaminade Tuesday.
— Gavin Keefe