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UConn's backcourt continues to grow in win over Cincy

POSTED January 10, 2015
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia

HARTFORD – The timing may not have been ideal, especially since their struggles played a role in UConn losing five of its first 11 games, but the Huskies’ backcourt has finally developed the continuity that is vital if they are to have a successful season.

That growth was certainly on display Saturday when UConn, in front of the first sellout of the year at the XL Center, defeated Cincinnati, 62-56, for its third consecutive victory.

Ryan Boatright, still fighting through nagging thigh and ankle injuries, had one of his best all-around games, recording 18 points, eight assists, four rebounds and three steals. Omar Calhoun continued his resurgence with 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, while Rodney Purvis had another strong outing with 11 points.

Most telling, though, was the contribution Terrence Samuel made off the bench, despite a stat line that wouldn’t suggest so: zero points and zero assists in 17 minutes. Samuel’s ability to stave off Cincinnati’s press and give the Huskies an additional ball-handler helped them finish with an impressive 46 percent shooting effort. This came against a Bearcats (11-4, 2-1 AAC) team that came into the contest seventh in the nation in defense, allowing only 54.1 points per game.

It was evident why as they notched 11 steals and 10 blocks, but UConn’s backcourt took control in the second half, helping the Huskies outscore Cincinnati by 10 points in the final 20 minutes. Boatright sealed the win with four free throws in the final minute.

UConn has now won five of its last six games with the lone loss coming to Temple in overtime, a game in which Boatright missed the second half. The backcourt’s progress is a major reason why.

“We’re playing together, our chemistry is getting stronger, and we know where each other is going to be,” said Boatright, who estimates he’s playing at 80-85 percent health. “I love what we’re doing together.”

Samuel logged 12 minutes in the second half, only turned it over once and allowed Boatright to play on the wing. Throw his stat sheet out. He played a big part in this win.

“It’s not about points. It’s about contributing in different ways,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “He got great rebounds (four), he was able to break pressure and he was able to run the offense to get Boatright off the ball. I thought he did a wonderful job giving us some meaningful minutes.” 

“When Terrence comes in and takes care of the basketball like that, it opens up things for me,” noted Boatright. “He’s a great teammate and has a great attitude and does what coach tells him to do.”

Calhoun, meanwhile, continues to show glimpses of his freshman glory, scoring in double figures for the third time in five games while shooting a sizzling 57 percent in that stretch.

On Saturday, he was involved in the biggest sequence of the game, hitting a three in transition after Rakim Lubin, a big factor of late, blocked a shot. Calhoun’s basket gave UConn a 55-49 lead with five minutes remaining, and lifted the 15,564 in attendance to its biggest roar of the afternoon.

“The rim is starting to look big,” Calhoun said. “I’ve just been in the gym a lot. I’m starting to feel real comfortable with my shot. Everything pays off. Whatever the defense gives me, I take advantage of.”

His comfort level and contributions were something the Huskies lacked in their first four losses, notably the defeats at home to Texas and Yale.

“Omar played well, giving us that boost offensively that we need,” Ollie said. “The things that he’s doing for us are remarkable. Twelve points in 19 minutes, I’ll take that every day.” 

The Huskies now stand at 9-5 and 2-1 in AAC play. For an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, they have very little room for any slip-ups in this shaky conference. It’s why Saturday’s win was crucial.

“I like where our team is going now. We just have to keep taking steps forward,” Ollie said. “Now we’re on the road again. It seems like we didn’t unpack our bags, but it is what it is. We’re going to go down to Tulsa and Stanford and, hopefully, we’ll do the same thing that we did in Florida.”

UConn's two wins it secured in Florida, along with Saturday’s, had a lot to do with the togetherness of its backcourt. How far the Huskies go may be determined by guard play as well.

Better late than never.

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