STORRS – So far, the Connecticut basketball season is playing out like a tightly written movie script authored by first-year coach Kevin Ollie. Title it “From Germany With Love.” And although the second scene wasn’t as scintillating as The Opening act, it still produced a victory and provided the type of consistency UConn’s director has demanded from his actors.
Shabazz Napier scored all 13 of his points in the second half and led a balanced offense as No. 23 UConn (2-0) followed up its upset of Michigan State with a 67-49 win over Vermont (1-1) in the home opener before 7,962 at Gampel Pavilion Tuesday night.
Freshman Omar Calhoun added 12 points, R.J. Evans came off the bench to score 11 and guard Ryan Boatright and forward Tyler Olander each finished with nine points. There was no star on this night of team play. But it was Olander who personified the mantra Ollie has established for the Huskies - with nine rebounds, four assists and four steals in addition to the points.
“I just think he’s doing a wonderful job,” Ollie said of Olander. “He’s not a step slow. Last year, he might have been a step slow. Now he’s reacting better. I just think he’s playing with confidence and he’s understanding his role on this team. He’s just coming out with that mentality that, ‘I’m not going to give in, no matter what.’ ”
That’s the perfect fit for Ollie’s coaching philosophy. It’s all about hard work. And playing Tuesday between trips to Germany and St. Thomas, Ollie didn’t want to hear about jet lag or fatigue or anything else.
“No excuses,” Ollie said after the game. “People were throwing that on my porch today. The newspaper. I wasn’t subscribing to it. I wasn’t subscribing to the excuses of jet lag, coming back and Germany. No. We’re not subscribing to that. We subscribe to playing basketball the right way. That’s how Connecticut has been doing it, throughout these years when I played here and it’s going to be the same thing when I coach here.”
Ollie became the first UConn coach to start his career 2-0 since Dee Rowe in 1969. Rowe started 5-0 that season. Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun began his UConn career with a win over UMass and then lost in overtime at Yale.
The Huskies played solid defense on the way to a 32-23 halftime lead. Through the first 17 minutes of the game, Vermont had only four field goals and the Catamounts were shooting 17 percent. UConn rattled Vermont early with tight man-to-man that led to five steals. The Huskies also had four blocked shots in the first half, two by Olander and two by Phillip Nolan.
Vermont finished the first half 6 of 26 (23.1 percent) from the floor and committed seven turnovers. The Huskies, who had only two turnovers at halftime, might have had a bigger lead but they shot 36.4 percent (12 of 33) and were outrebounded 23-19.
And then there was Napier, who scored 25 in the upset of Michigan State but was 0-for-3 from the field in 16 minutes of the first half. That prompted a little halftime meeting with Ollie.
“I don’t really know what he said to me; I really don’t,” said Napier, who was 4-for-7 in the second half. “I think he said something like, ‘Shabazz, play your game’ or something of that nature. I wasn’t. But I missed my first three shots and I wanted to get involved in some other way.”
With the game tied at 7-7, Evans came off the bench to energize the Huskies – something that has become a regular event. The graduate student transfer from Holy Cross hit a pair of layups, the first in transition to give UConn an 11-10 lead. DeAndre Daniels (7 points) backed that up with a steal and a slam dunk that really pumped up the crowd with 11:38 remaining and the Huskies were off to the victory.
|DeAndre Daniels dunks after a sensational left-handed, behind the back pass from Ryan Boatright|
“Whenever I go in, I’m going to play my hardest,” Evans said. “I’m a team player. It doesn’t matter if I go in and play two minutes or play 30 minutes. I’m going to play hard and hope my team wins.”
Evans, who was 5-for-5 from the field in his 17 minutes, is providing the experience and leadership that was expected of him when the coaching staff decided to bring him onboard for one season. And the younger players are feeding off that.
“Every day they ask me if I’ve signed up for AARP yet,” Evans, 22, said.
Calhoun, who is still 18, had a pair of three-point shots in a 12-2 run by the Huskies and that extended UConn’s lead to 25-15 with 6:28 left in the first half. They eventually led by 20 points midway through the second half, while shooting 56.5 percent after halftime.
“I’m a Connecticut kid and grew up idolizing this program and what coach [Jim] Calhoun has built here,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “Coach Ollie is doing a great job carrying it on.
“They’re physical. They have two special guards. I thought, for the most part, we did a good job on the two main guys – Napier and Boatright. But I thought Olander really hurt us inside, especially on the offensive glass.”
Vermont didn’t have one player score in double figures. Luke Apfeld led the way with nine and four others, including leader Brian Voelkel, had eight. Despite better shooting in the second half, the Catamounts were still 15 of 50 from the floor (30 percent) and foul trouble for forward Ethan O’Day (four points), a product of E.O. Smith and former teammate of Olander’s, was problematic.
“We’ve learned that if we just play hard, good things will happen,” Olander said. “This was a real effort game, a real focus game. Attention to detail – the little things – really made a difference.”