HARTFORD, Conn. – Assistant coach George Blaney is a regular at postgame press conferences involving the Connecticut basketball program. On the way to the interview room Saturday night at the XL Center, Blaney couldn’t resist making an observation to coach Kevin Ollie.
“Like Coach Blaney said, this was a good day in my life,” Ollie told the assembled media.
No one could argue with Blaney or Ollie. On Saturday morning, Ollie agreed to a new contract that would keep him in the head coach’s seat at UConn through 2018. Before the Huskies tipped off against Washington, Ollie and athletic director Warde Manuel shared the details of the new deal at a press conference. And then UConn (10-2) completed its non-conference work with an impressive 61-53 victory over the Huskies from the West Coast.
UConn even outrebounded an opponent (40-36) for just the second time this season.
The five-year extension is worth just under $7 million. News of the new contract spread through the state faster than Saturday’s blizzard-like snowstorm and the 6,600 or so who braved the conditions to attend the game gave Ollie quite the ovation as he led his staff onto the floor before the game.
“Of course,” Ollie said when asked if he heard the crowd. “My legs were shaking and everything. It was like the first game I ever stepped into the XL Center. My legs were shaking because I was excited for the moment. I never thought it could happen to a guy out of South Central Los Angeles.”
The UConn players, many of whom said in October that their goal was to have enough success to prove Ollie deserved an extension, played an inspired game against their Pac-12 opponent. Washington (8-5) scored a season low point total and was held to a season-low 29.7 percent from the field.
And despite 17 turnovers – 11 of them in the second half – UConn held off Washington with good defense and rebounding.
“Give a lot of credit to UConn tonight,” Washington coach Lorenzo Romar said. “They did a nice job. Down the stretch, they probably turned the ball over more than they would have liked. But they did a good job of sticking with what they were trying to do.”
Omar Calhoun (14 points), Shabazz Napier (13 points) and Ryan Boatright (12 points) led the scoring attack. But the frontcourt contributions of Tyler Olander (four points, two rebounds, one block), Enosch Wolf (two points, nine rebounds, two blocks) and Phillip Nolan (three points) gave UConn its energy.
“Our big men were terrific tonight,” Ollie said. “I was taking them in and out, subbing them. They did it by committee. Enosch got on the floor about five or six times that vividly stick in my mind. He played an outstanding game.”
Olander was back in the starting lineup for UConn after a three-game absence. But Wolf got the crowd pumped by diving on the floor, deflecting passes and, with the game on the line, he stepped in took a charge in the final three minutes. It was a huge play.
“I was trying to get every [loose] ball that I could,” Wolf said. “I knew I wasn’t going to score a lot today so I was just trying to get every possible ball. . . . I needed a [physical] game like this. I feel like I didn’t respond to the physicality in the last game. I took it real personal and went out there to show I can respond.”
There were some rough and tough moments in the lane. One of those came with 1:22 to play when DeAndre Daniels got spun around and hit the floor face down. He came up groggy and bleeding. Ollie said Daniels (nine points, five rebounds) needed stitches in his chin.
“He’s going to have a battle wound,” Ollie said. “It will make him look a little tougher when we go to Marquette. But I think he’ll be ready to play.”
Seven Huskies scored in the first half as UConn built a 31-26 lead at halftime. Napier led the Huskies with eight points despite 1-for-5 shooting from the field. He made up for that by going 6-for-8 from the free throw line.
Reserve guard R.J. Evans provided a spark off the bench again, scoring back-to-back baskets that gave UConn a 17-16 lead after the Huskies had fallen behind 16-10. Those baskets were part of an 11-0 run that put UConn ahead 21-16 after a Calhoun basket with 9:58 left in the half.
Scott Suggs (15 points) led Washington but Ollie complimented Napier for the defensive job he did on future NBA guard C.J. Wilcox, who was held to five points on 2-foor-12 shooting.
“Wilcox is a great scorer,” Napier said. “We tried many strategies to get him off his rhythm, whether it was denying him the ball, whether it was hitting him with some screens, getting him tired.”
Said Romar: “C.J. had some looks that he doesn’t normally miss. He’s such a good shooter. Early the shots were contested. Then he had some wide open looks that he couldn’t get to go down.”
UConn opens Big East Conference play at Marquette Tuesday night. The emotion over the news of Ollie’s new contract will be worn off by then. But the Huskies closed out the non-conference portion with 10 wins. There ere lose losses to New Mexico and North Carolina State, two teams that have been ranked this season, but no one could have imagined this type of start for a team that lost so many players and isn’t eligible for the postseason.
“We were just happy,” Calhoun said, regarding Ollie’s extension. “We clapped it up for him.”
There were multiple tests that Ollie passed on the way to a contract extension, but he has cleared demonstrated the ability to lead and get his players to follow. Don’t expect Ollie to stop now. The new deal is just a beginning for him and his players.
“I’m happy with 10-2, but I’m not satisfied,” Ollie said. “I think we can give a lot more and I’m going to push the guys and will them to give a lot more. I want them to have the best attitude in American. And that’s what we’re going to strive for.”