Tough Guys Carry UConn

HARTFORD – That guy who played point guard last season can never be replaced in Connecticut basketball history. But four games into Season One of "Life After Kemba," it is obvious the UConn backcourt is in good hands.

Correction. The Huskies are in extremely good hands with Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb.

Fourth-ranked UConn (4-0) came to life midway through the first half Sunday and defeated a scrappy Coppin State (1-3) team 87-70 before a crowd of 11,397 at the XL Center. Long after this season is over, and for years to come, those in attendance will talk about the November afternoon when Napier and Lamb proved their toughness.

It was a special matinee.

"I just told the team that [the phrase] ‘tough-guy Jeremy Lamb' doesn't always occur to you," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "And [Coppin State coach Fang Mitchell] just said to me, ‘The toughest kid you have is the little guy with the ball.' And he's 100 percent right about that."

Lamb, playing with a sprained ankle, led the Huskies with 25 points on a day when few thought he would play. And Napier put together a extraordinary package that elevates him to legendary status in the UConn record book. Napier became the ninth player in UConn history to record a triple-double with 22 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds.

Obviously, the numbers are important. But they only tell part of the story.

According to associate head coach George Blaney, it was 13 minutes before tipoff when the coaching staff was informed Lamb could play. Calhoun had already gone to Napier and prepared him for the worst scenario.

"He said stay out of foul trouble, 40 minutes, and be ready to play a lot," said Napier, who never had a double-double in his college career prior to Sunday. "He said to run the team, be a leader, and stay out of foul trouble. And make sure we win the game.

"When your dominant scorer is out of the game, you are thinking of your other players and who else could be an offensive threat? But luckily [Lamb] came to play. It shocks me. His sprained ankle looked terrible in practice. Then, having 25 points is like, ‘Wow. You know, was your ankle really hurt?' "

There was some pain during the game, Lamb admitted. But most of the suffering was inflicted on the Eagles, who lost at Oklahoma 92-65 Friday night and then didn't arrive in Hartford until late Saturday afternoon. Coppin State didn't practice but went to the XL Center for an early shoot-around Sunday morning.

But there was nothing Mitchell could do to prepare for the things Napier and Lamb did.

"They're very strong, and Napier, he's a tremendous player," Mitchell said. "He and Lamb just went to work on us.

"I told my coaches I haven't seen a triple double in a long time, especially from a point guard. I mean that's really unbelievable. That tells you a lot about his heart. Any time you get 12 defensive rebounds and you're a point guard, you're going in there and mixing it."

Guard Tony Gallo led Coppin State with 21 points and six rebounds. The Eagles hit 12 of 31 three-point attempts only lost the rebounding battle by six boards (42-36). But Lamb and Napier combined to hit 18 of 31shots and were 6 of 14 from beyond the arc. Lamb played 37 minutes and Napier logged 39.

Ironically, the last two UConn players to record triple-doubles were in the stands Sunday. Kemba Walker and Hasheem Thabeet, regular fans now because of the NBA lockout, were sitting directly behind the UConn bench. Walker had 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists against UMBC on Dec. 3, 2010. Thabeet finished with 15 points, 11 rebounds and 10 blocks against Providence on Jan. 31, 2009.

Marcus Williams, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, Caron Butler, Doron Sheffer and Donyell Marshall are the other names on UConn's elite triple-double list.

"Shabazz has great court vision and he just finds me," said forward Roscoe Smith, who came off the bench to score 15 points, including a three-point play off a terrific no-look pass from Napier in the first half. "I'm pretty much used to it. It happens every day in practice. After a play like that, everybody is smiling. And that's one thing about our team. We don't care who's doing it, as long as it's done."

Lamb, who is averaging 22.8 points, sprained his right ankle in practice Saturday morning and spent 24 hours in therapy and rehabilitation to prepare for the game. By all accounts the injury, which happened when Lamb jumped and landed on a teammate's foot during a workout closed to the media, was scary enough to make the Huskies very concerned about his status.

"I think it bodes well for him in the future, at UConn and beyond," Calhoun said. "He had to play through some pain. When he went down, he went down pretty good. We had it X-rayed. And we did not think he was going to play."

About two hours before game time, Lamb said he dunked and the ankle felt fine. Then it started to tighten up again. Lamb just kept working with trainer James Doran.

"He wasn't putting me in a bad situation," Lamb said. "He said the way I was moving, he thought that generally during the game, I'd be able to play. I said, ‘Well, you know best.' He told the coaches.

"When it happened, I thought it was real bad. I knew it hurt and I heard something crack. It felt horrible. It sounded horrible. All that. Everybody in the gym, was like ‘Ohhhhh.' But [Doran] knows what is best. There was pain in the game. I couldn't run full speed. And it got real stiff. I just had to play through it."

Coppin State missed its first three shots of the game but still managed a 24-12 lead midway through the first half. That was thanks to a 9 of 11 shooting run, including five three-point baskets – the ultimate equalizer for a smaller and less talented team against a powerhouse like UConn.

When Michael Harper (15 points) came off the bench for a traditional three-point play (he scored and was fouled by Napier), the Eagles led 27-14 and the Huskies appeared to be on their flight to the Bahamas for a weekend tournament about 24 hours ahead of schedule.

But that 13-point deficit seemed to serve as UConn's wakeup call. Napier was terrific out of the chute but his teammates decided to play along with just over nine minutes remaining in the first half. Coppin State went four minutes without scoring and the Huskies, benefactors of foul trouble for the Eagles, went on a 19-2 run. Smith came off the bench to help ignite the run with nine points of his own from 8 minutes left in the half to 4:11.

Lamb scored the final seven UConn points of the first half as the Huskies went into the break with a 41-34 lead. He picked up right where he left off as he scored the first five points for UConn in the second half. Those 12 straight enabled the Huskies to surge ahead 46-34.

With UConn leading 50-36 and 17:44 left in the game, Mitchell had seen enough and called a timeout.

"You've got to give Connecticut credit for putting the pressure on us," Mitchell said. "When they had to turn it up, they turned it up. Everything went sour after they took the first lead. And then the struggle began."

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