Huskies Find Their Swagger

HARTFORD, Conn. – Connecticut forward Alex Oriakhi was still smiling as he walked into the room full of reporters, cameras, microphones and tape recorders. That Oriakhi grin, such a big part of UConn's march to the national championship last season, returned midway through the first half against Seton Hall Saturday.

It was so obvious and so infectious that the sellout crowd of 16,249 at the XL Center stood and cheered. Everyone in the building knew it was a good sign.

"I think we finally had our fun out there," Oriakhi said after coming off the bench for 10 points and eight rebounds to help the Huskies break their four-game losing streak with a 69-46 victory over Seton Hall. "Everybody bought in. That's what happened last year when everyone was together as a team.

"There were a lot of smiles out there and the crowd was definitely great. We jumped out to a big lead and you could definitely hear the crowd out there. I think it boosted us up and we were able to build the lead even more."

Playing without coach Jim Calhoun, who has taken an indefinite medical leave of absence because of a worsening back condition, UConn (15-7, 5-5 Big East) rediscovered its energy and enthusiasm against Seton Hall (15-8, 4-7). The Huskies returned to the standard characteristics of UConn basketball under Calhoun by turning up the pressure on defense, going after loose balls, and moving the ball better on offense against Seton Hall's zone defense.

Associate head coach George Blaney, filling in again for Calhoun, started the game with UConn's three-guard lineup of Jeremy Lamb, Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright – along with Andre Drummond at center and Tyler Olander at forward. Blaney told reporters after practice Friday that he wasn't sure about the starting lineup. But he admitted after the game that he had structured practice that way as a test drive.

"I thought the three-guard lineup helped us in that the ball got moved much better," Blaney said. "I'm still not pleased with 43 percent [shooting], but I certainly will take it over what we've been doing.

"We looked at what was coming up with Seton Hall, Louisville and Syracuse and knew we probably were going to see a lot of zone. You certainly need ball movement. Tyler is our best frontcourt passer. When you do move the ball on the top and get the ball changed from one side of the court to the other, that's when you can penetrate zones. Both Ryan and Shabazz did a terrific job of that."

Boatright, making his second consecutive start, scored 19 points – his highest output since his season high against Arkansas on Dec. 3. Lamb hit only 3 of 10 shots from the field but got to the line for nine free throws and finished with 17 points.

"Everybody was just tired of losing and we knew we had to do it together," said Boatright, who added five assists and four steals to a stellar 36-minute performance. "We dug ourselves a hole and we were the only ones that were going to get ourselves out. That's what we said in the meeting and that's what we did today."

When Blaney got the word Friday that Calhoun would miss, at the minimum, Saturday's game and Monday's upcoming game at Louisville, it set off a series of meetings. First Blaney called on Napier, Lamb and Oriakhi to step up in their leadership roles. Then Napier and Oriakhi called a players-only meeting to bring the team together.

Oriakhi, UConn's elder statesman as a junior, has not been a great verbal leader. But in that team meeting he talked about the misery of his freshman season when the Huskies missed the NCAA tournament. He contrasted that to the experience of winning a national championship last season.

"I told the guys it really hurts not to make the tournament," Oriakhi said. "I told guys I'm willing to give up my minutes and I don't care any more. I don't care if I'm on the bench, I'll be the biggest cheerleader. I just want to win. When I said that, you could see the guys' eyes, they really bought into it.

"I said, ‘Either we're in or we're out.' Everybody said they were in. I think that really helped. It's crazy when you change everybody's mindset what can happen."

Oriakhi, who apologized to this teammates for being selfish and thinking about his minutes, said his mother, his father and Kevin Freeman, UConn's assistant director of basketball administration, had all been urging him to call a team meeting.

"I'm getting it from all different directions and I figure I'm wrong if I don't [do it]," he said. "And I really that that meeting was all the difference in the world."

Seton Hall, which beat UConn 75-63 in Newark on Jan. 3, now has lost six straight. The Pirates were missing leading scorer and rebounder Herb Pope, who didn't play because of bruised ribs. Jordan Theodore and Aaron Cosby each had 10 points for the Pirates, who shot 25.9 percent and had 15 turnovers.

Napier and Theodore got into a little tussle with 3:41 remaining. Both received technical fouls and then coach Kevin Willard entered the discussion and was ejected after two quick T's.

"I thought the refs called a good game," said Willard, who originally declined to talk to the media and then reconsidered. "To be honest with you, there is one of them [Gene Steratore] I don't get along with. I wanted to wish him a very happy Valentine's Day. He didn't like that and that was the end of that.

"I don't mind getting blown out. I do have an issue when the refs enjoy the blow out."

UConn led 14-13 with just over seven minutes left in the first half when everything started working. The Huskies went on a 10-0 run and led 30-17 at halftime. The second half began with a 9-2 run and UConn led 39-19 with 14 minutes left.

The Huskies opened the game up with Drummond on the bench with two fouls. But he joined in the fun in the second half and in 18 minutes finished with seven points, six rebounds and seven blocked shots.

"It's not all about scoring," Drummond said. "You've got to stop the other team from scoring and then you can just work the other end of the court when you get the chance."

Oriakhi and Drummond even combined to be an effective tandem in the game – and that hasn't been the case too often. Than again, Oriakhi has earned a new degree of respect among all of his teammates.

"He's a good guy to be around; always joking and stuff," Lamb said. "Yesterday, he got serious with us. He told us how he felt, in his heart. He's been through good seasons and bad seasons. He just told us we're a good team and we've got to play like it."

Blaney said he spoke to Calhoun briefafter the game and the Hall of Fame coach "sounded better" after the victory. The Huskies figured they made their coach happy - even if he was absent.

"He was probably saying, ‘That's the team I know,' " Oriakhi said.

Oriakhi knows the "team meeting" tactic can't be used before every game. But he does plan on speaking up more often – and spreading more smiles.

"That's what this team needs and that's what I have to do," Oriakhi said. "Guys have to understand I'm new at this as well. I've always been the guy in the back seat. It's new to me. But I'm willing to do it."


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