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UConn faces important pre-holiday test against Auburn

Hartford — The Huskies will pack their bags and head home for a brief holiday break following Friday afternoon's basketball game.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie is trying to guard against his team checking out too early.

The Huskies have a stiff non-conference test against Auburn (9-2), which is off to its best start in nine years. Game time is 2:30 p.m. at the XL Center.

"Hopefully, we can focus in and then after the game they can put their minds on the holidays, do some last minute shopping and get home and do what they have to do," Ollie said after practice on Thursday in Hartford. "But I think our guys are focused. We've got to be focused. We're playing good basketball and we just want to continue.

"I don't want their minds to be wandering off on going home right now. I try to keep reminding them of that. But they're 18 or 19 year olds. We were there at one time. Your mind can wander a lot. We're just trying to keep them on our path, on our goal and our mindset and really try to get better each and every day. Hopefully, we can continue to do that. I do see progress, though."

Progress can be measured on several levels.

The Huskies (5-5) are coming off one of their best all-around game of the season, an 80-59 rout of North Florida on Sunday. They're playing stellar defense, holding their last four foes to a combined 31.1 percent from the field and 55.5 points per game. Their slumbering offense is showing signs of life, as a balanced attack produced the highest scoring output in a win this season. They had a season-best 40 points in the lane against North Florida.

"We're definitely feeling more comfortable as a team," red-shirt senior Rodney Purvis said.

A win Friday would send UConn over .500 for the first time this season. That won't be easy to accomplish playing a young and talented Auburn, a member of the Southeastern Conference.

The Tigers are a dangerous offensive team, averaging 81 points per game. They can light it up from the perimeter, converting 9.5 3-pointers per game. They hit a school-record 21 shots from beyond the arc in a win over Coastal Carolina earlier this month.

"They've got a lot of scorers...," Ollie said. "We're going to really have to play some good defense. (Coach Bruce) Pearl is going to have those guys charged up. They had a great win against Oklahoma (on Wednesday). We've got to come out and play a great team, great program and hopefully we can get over .500."

Friday's game will be a homecoming for Auburn freshman Mustapha Heron, who helped Sacred Heart of Waterbury capture three straight state titles. He averaged 30 points and eight rebounds as a high school senior.

Heron's career is off to a fabulous start, as he's the first Auburn freshman to score in double figures in his first 11 games since All-American Wesley Person during the 1990-91 season. An athletic 6-foot-5 forward, he is leading the team in points (16.0) and rebounds (6.7) per game.

During the recruiting process, Ollie reached out to Heron but the three-time all-state selection indicated a desire to go to school out of state.

"He's a great player," Ollie said. "He's always in attack mode. He's got a great elite body. He just puts his head down and he goes. He attacks on the offensive and defensive end. He's a wonderful kid. I had a chance to speak to him a couple of times. We just found out he didn't have an interest in staying home or being at the University of Connecticut and we had to move on."

News and notes

• Highly-ranked recruit Hamidou Diallo began his official visit to UConn on Thursday. He watched the Huskies practice at the XL Center and then chatted with Ollie afterward. The Putnam Science Academy standout guard will attend Friday's game. ... UConn sophomore Steve Enoch, who's from Norwalk, has known Heron for a few years. They used to work out together in Waterbury and also played in a few of the same leagues. "I'm really cool with him," Enoch said. ... All eight scholarship players are healthy heading into the final game before the holiday break. "It feels pretty good," Ollie said. "I'm happy with practice and the way practice has been going since our last game."

g.keefe@theday.com

UCONN vs. AUBURN

Location: XL Center, Hartford

Tip: 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Records: UConn 5-5, Auburn 9-2

Last game: UConn beat North Florida, 80-59, Sunday; Auburn defeated Oklahoma, 74-70, Wednesday in Hall of Fame Birthday of Basketball event at Mohegan Sun Arena.

Probable starters: UConn, 6-3 so. guard Jalen Adams (17.4 pts, 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebs), 6-4 r-sr. guard Rodney Purvis (12.1 pts, 4.6 rebs), 6-8 fr. forward Vance Jackson (6.4 pts), 6-10 sr. forward Kentan Facey (5.6 pts, 5.8 rebs), 7-0 sr. center Amida Brimah (7 pts, 5.6 rebs, 3 blks)

Auburn, 5-10 fr. Guard Jared Harper (11.9 pts, 2.9 assists), 6-5 fr. Guard Mustapha Heron (16 pts, 6.7 rebs), 6-7 r-fr. forward Daniel Purifoy (15.5 pts, 5.4 rebs), 6-7 jr. forward T.J. Lang (5 pts), 6-11 fr. center Austin Wiley (7.5 pts, 3 rebs, 2 blks)

Noteworthy: Huskies won three of last four. ... UConn took only other meeting, beating Auburn, 95-81, in 1989 Great Alaska Shootout. ... Auburn off to best start in nine years. ... Huskies 25-9 overall vs. Southeastern Conference teams. ... Seven underclassmen, including four freshmen, in regular rotation for Tigers. ... Top reserve: sr. guard T.J. Dunans (8.3 pts, 4 rebs, 3 assists).  ... Heron helped Sacred Heart-Waterbury capture three straight state titles. ... Common foes: Auburn also beat North Florida, 83-66, Nov. 11. ... Hot: Tigers lead SEC with 9.5 3-pters made per game. Cold: UConn's last four foes shot a combined 31.1 percent from field. ... Huskies already lost more non-conference games than last season when they went 10-3. ... UConn won 32 straight pre-Christmas games, last losing in 1983 to UMass. ... Purvis needs 34 points to reach 1,000 for his UConn career... Up next: UConn hosts Houston in AAC opener Wednesday in Hartford.

— Gavin Keefe

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