HARTFORD, Conn. – Niels Giffey called it the "tipping point." Coach Kevin Ollie said it was "crucial."
Both were talking about Giffey's steal that resulted in a basket-and-one play with 9:54 left in Sunday's game at the XL Center. With Rutgers and Connecticut struggling to shoot, finding it difficult to score,and playing a grind-it-out game that made your eyes sting to watch, Giffey made a play that turned things in UConn's favor.
UConn guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright combined for 34 points, DeAndre Daniels scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds but any analysis of the Huskies' 66-54 victory over Rutgers would have to include Giffey's seven points and four steals in 22 minutes off the bench.
And that play with just under 10 minutes remaining gave UConn (13-5, 3-3 Big East) a lead that it never relinquished. With the score tied at 32, Enosch Wolf of the Huskies had just fired up a short jumper from the left baseline that soared over the basket and didn't touch a thing until it found Daniels' hands. But UConn turned the ball over.
With Rutgers trying to set up its halfcourt offense, forward Wally Judge threw the ball into the hands of Giffey for a steal. And Giffey took off for the other end, heading to the rim. Giffey scored on a layup and Judge recklessly fouled him. The foul sent Judge to the bench with four fouls. Giffey hit the free throw to complete the traditional "three-point play" and UConn led 35-32.
"Those are the kind of things I can do that elevate the whole team," Giffey said. "Little plays, rebounds and steals. Every great team needs guys like that. I'm trying to always take the step and get in that position where I'm the role player. If you've got guys like Shabazz and Boatright, who are always going to be great scorers, you've got to find ways to score and find ways to contribute. And you've got to find ways to win."
Sloppy would be the best way to describe this Big East game and for a while it looked as if neither team would find a way to win. UConn shot 42.3 percent from the floor, which was slightly better than Rutgers (39.3 percent). The Huskies missed their first nine shots of the second half and recorded their first made field goal when Boatright scored on a run-out dunk with 14:18 left.
But the Huskies did meet the two biggest goals Ollie gave them before the game. They rebounded, winning the battle of the boards 37-33. And they played defense, with Giffey getting four of UConn's seven steals, Wolf blocking three shots, and the Huskies scoring 14 points off 16 Rutgers turnovers.
"I look at versatility in the dictionary, I see Niels Giffey's picture by it," Ollie said. "I call on him to play the three, the four, two and one. He just steps up and does it. I love him to death."
As Ollie said, the three-point play gave UConn a boost. Napier hit a pair of three-pointers. Boatright followed that with a three-pointer of his own and UConn led 44-37. After Rutgers cut the lead to three, Daniels scored on a put-back, then stole the ball and raced ahead for a dunk to make it 52-43.
"[Giffey] is always that guy that's going to give us a spark, no matter what," Napier said. "He comes off the bench, he's ready to play. He could be starting but he understands that he needs to come off the bench. He enjoys that role. We need more guys like that."
It wasn't just the steal that pleased Ollie. He has been harping on Giffey to finish strong and that's what he did as Judge fouled him after the steal.
"He went up strong," Ollie said. "And that's what we've been telling Niels. Neils is so athletic and sometimes he goes in, but not with force. He went up with force. He went right through Judge and got the foul. It really energized us and propelled us to a nice victory."
Napier has a ball
On Jan. 8 against DePaul, Napier became the 47th player in UConn history to score 1,000 points in his career. Before the game Sunday, Ollie presented Napier with a special souvenir basketball honoring the achievement. Napier brought the ball with him to the interview room after the game. "It was kind of a shock; I didn't think I was going to get one, but it felt good," Nappier said. "When it happened I didn't know about it. R.J. [Evans] was like, ‘Good job,' and I'm like, ‘What are you talking about?' It's good and I think it means something to a lot of people, but not to me right now because I have no idea. I'm still a young kid and I'm in college still, but when I look back at it, 10 years from now, I'll be happy about it." . . . Rutgers lost its third consecutive game despite a career-high 21 points from guard Jerome Seagears, who averages 4.5 points. "Jerome had an energy to him and started off making some shots," Rutgers coach Mike Rice said. "Our balance has gone out the window because guys are too inconsistent. I appreciate Jerome and his game, but you need more for a victory in the Big East." Rice wasn't happy with his team's turnovers. "There are times I think this team is ready to break out of it and then there are times we get in our own way," Rice said. . . . UConn hasn't lost a home game to Rutgers since Jan. 8, 1977. . . . Napier didn't seem as bothered by his left shoulder contusion. "I wasn't think too much about my shoulder," Napier said "I was just excited about how well we were playing defense."
UConnPlaybook.com intern Carmine Colangelo contributed to this article.