Huskies Show Mental Toughness

STORRS, Conn. – The engagement might have looked easy on the schedule, especially compared to the upcoming Big East Conference slate that is full of ranked teams and proud, traditional programs with excellent coaching.

But playing Harvard isn't easy.

And the Harvard team that visited Gampel Pavilion Thursday night has all the ingredients of an NCAA tournament team. If, for some reason, Harvard doesn't win the Ivy League and grab the automatic bid to the dance, the Crimson deserves an at-large bid.

That's getting ahead of the game, but the point had to made. Ninth-ranked Connecticut (8-1) downed No. 25 Harvard 67-53 before 10,167 at Gampel – and the Huskies should feel good about that as they head into a 10-day break for final exams.

It was the first loss of the season for Harvard (8-1), a team that deserved to be ranked, a team that believes in its style, a team that is experienced and mature, and a team that is extremely well coached by former Duke standout Tommy Amaker.

"The hardest part about playing them is you have to stay in for the whole 35 seconds [on defense]," UConn forward Tyler Olander said. "You have to stay connected to your man but also know where the ball is at all times. They run their offense really well and they will milk that shot clock the whole 35 if they have to. You have to stay focused on defense."

The Huskies experienced a lull here and there, but for the most part they stayed on task and opened up a 16-point lead midway through the second half. Guard Jeremy Lamb led the Huskies with game-highs in points (18) and rebounds (7). Center Andre Drummond, playing for the first time without his protective mask, had his own personal dunk-fest and scored 12 points. Freshman guard Ryan Boatright came off the bench again for 11 points.

"I thought our defense got better and better," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said. "I thought we made a few mistakes where we could have made better choices but, otherwise, I think we're getting better. I think our size bothered them."

UConn held Keith Wright, Harvard's leading scorer, to nine points on 3-for-10 shooting. The Crimson, down 30-28 at halftime, missed 11 of their first 12 shots in the second half but still made things uncomfortable for the Huskies by trimming the lead to eight twice in the final six minutes.

"I thought the difference was the beginning of the second half and how they took control of the game," Amaker said. "We tried our best to make a run at it, but they're so crafty with the ball. We didn't get much of anything easy around the basket which is probably going to happen to a lot of teams when they face this basketball team with their size and athleticism."

This was one of those games that will help both teams as the season progresses and March rolls around. Harvard came into a hostile environment, showed a lot of poise and gave the Huskies a battle.

And the Huskies, who shot 56 percent in the second half and committed only eight turnovers all night, found out there is more to success than the final box score. At least that was the theme coming from guard Shabazz Napier.

"I think the one thing that separates us from being a great team is that we don't have the killer instinct," Napier said. "We don't have that, ‘We're up by 15 now, let's punch it in and get home without having a tough game at the end.' Once we get that I think, I think we'll be a great team."

One of the best signs for the Huskies was the way Drummond played without his mask. He was 6-for-7 from the floor – five dunks and a gentle jump hook. He had a block that got the crowd into the game and he gave the Huskies an inside presence they had been lacking with Alex Oriakhi (5 points, 6 rebounds) struggling with his confidence.

"That's one of the bet stats we've had all year," Calhoun said. "We don't want finesse. When you're as big and strong as him, finesse doesn't com into the picture."

Drummond said he started cheering when he found he didn't need the mask that had been there since he broke his nose in October.

"You have no idea how happy I was," Drummond said. "I was so excited. I was thinking about burning it, but I couldn't find anywhere to do. It's floating around the training room right now. I walk past it, smile at it and walk away.

"I could see everything again. I could see when my defender [Wright] was moving. And I made it tough for him to score the ball. [On the dunks], it's nice to see when Shabazz is looking at me."

Perhaps the brightest spot of all for the Huskies was the knowledge that Calhoun won't be a grump the next 10 days. UConn is off until Dec. 18 when Holy Cross visits. And with the Big East season staring Dec. 28, he could have made life miserable for the Huskies if they had lost this game at home.

"He was preaching to us all week that we had to be mentally tough," Boatright said. "And that's what we did. We had to be patient and run our offense well.

"If we had lost, it would have been a long break – a long 10 days."


UCONN Playbook Top Stories