Huskies Push Past DePaul

STORRS, Conn. – As Shabazz Napier walked off the Gampel Pavilion floor Wednesday night, assistant coach Kevin Ollie put his arm around the Connecticut point guard, pulled him close, and offered a brief evaluation based on UConn's 80-54 victory over DePaul.

"He was just telling me good leadership today," said Napier who recorded 14 points, 11 assists, six rebounds, two steals and only two turnovers in a rare blowout win that UConn (16-9, 6-7 Big East) desperately needed. "He's been [preaching] to me about being the leader and how to do that positively. He just praised me after the game and said I was a real leader.

"It felt real good because he's one of the biggest role models I have right now. There's been a lot of times it has been rough for us. He always took me under my wing and said everything is going to be fine. Keep pushing. Keep pushing. I just took that and ran with it."

Ollie, in his second season as an assistant on Jim Calhoun's staff, went through plenty of ups and downs during his days playing the point in a Huskies uniform. Few people understand the UConn system and Calhoun's philosophy any better than Ollie.

Napier and his teammates had deviated from that blueprint while losing six of their last seven games. But against a weaker opponent - one that played directly into UConn's hands with an up-tempo pace – the Huskies returned to their running style that produces easy baskets.

And that made this an easy win.

Associate head coach George Blaney had been pleased with Napier's leadership in an 85-67 loss at Syracuse Saturday. And Blaney thought there was a great deal of carryover from that effort, including the play of Napier.

"I'm liking the way he's handling things on the floor," Blaney said of Napier. "He's talking to people, he's keeping people in the game. Most important, he's pushing the ball at people. When you drive it at people, it makes people back up. "If he and Ryan [Boatright] can push the ball at people, that puts them back on their heels. It's much easier to run offense when they push that way."

Jeremy Lamb led UConn with 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting from the field and praised Napier too.

"He played wonderful tonight," Lamb said.

Andre Drummond fought off the pain in the sprained right ankle he suffered in the second half against Syracuse and scored 15 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked two shots. And forward Alex Oriakhi had just his second double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) of the season as the Huskies looked much more comfortable at home after a disastrous road trip to Louisville and Syracuse.

DePaul (11-14, 2-11) almost never plays zone defense, so when coach Oliver Purnell opened the game with his Blue Demons in a man-to-man defensive set there was reason for the Huskies to celebrate. They have seen a steady diet of zones in Big East play.

"I'm like, ‘Thank God,' " said Oriakhi, who opened the scoring with a ferocious dunk follow off a Lamb miss just 31 seconds into the game. "I'd rather go against a man than zone. Going against a zone is difficult. You've got to find the open spots. . . . It's hard to [rebound and dunk] in a zone because you've got two guys boxing you out."

When Purnell did switch to a zone, UConn's DeAndre Daniels (eight points) had just come into the game off the bench. Daniels, who had his first "did not play" of the season against Syracuse, hit consecutive three-pointers to give UConn a 20-8 lead.

"How about that?" Purnell said. "Napier was awfully good on the break. Right now, if you play UConn and you give them easy baskets, then they're going to have a great chance to win. I thought they were struggling because teams were making them shoot over the top.

"They weren't shooting it really well and weren't getting seconds shots. That's what we wanted to do. We just didn't do that enough to give ourselves a chance to be in the ballgame."

The Huskies scored their most points since an 83-69 victory over St. John's on Dec. 31. They had 22 fastbreak points, 44 points in the paint, 19 second-chance points and 18 points off 14 DePaul turnovers.

In just the first 10 minutes of the game, UConn was on pace to score 100 points. The Huskies made 11 of their first 21 shots. But then they had a flashback to the problems they've had in their slump. They made just 3 of 18 shots in the 10 minutes before halftime and a 14-point lead shrunk to 34-24 at halftime.

"We missed incredibly easy shots in the first half," Blaney said. "I really got on them pretty good at halftime – but all about just playing harder and harder and harder. I kept pleading with them, ‘I want to score 50 points this half and I want to keep them under 50 [for the game].' And we came pretty close."

Blaney, usually mild mannered on the bench and in the locker room, channeled his inner Calhoun during that halftime talk. And it got everyone's attention.

"It's different [yelling], but he got into it," Napier said. "It was one of those things where you sit back and say, ‘Wow, he's yelling' because Blaney doesn't yell. We had to play hard and give that extra effort."

Lamb said Blaney essentially is Calhoun. He says the same things, just in a different voice, and runs the same system.

"He doesn't yell often," Lamb said. "He got on us though, and that's what we needed."

Said Drummond: "At halftime, he came in stomping his feet and hit the chalkboard. He's probably the most down-to-earth [person] I've ever seen. So, if he's yelling that means we're doing something wrong. We figured it out and went out and executed everything he wanted us to do."

Napier, still disappointed with his 5-for-12 shooting, said the Huskies had fun again on this night.

"And this is the way it should be," Napier said. "You're supposed to have fun playing basketball."

But it can't just last one game. No. 12 Marquette comes to Hartford on Saturday. A two-game home winning streak could go a long way toward firming up UConn's status as a NCAA Tournament team.

"It was nice, now we've got to focus on keeping it going," Lamb said. "We've got to keep it going."

UCONN Playbook Top Stories