All week in practice, head coach Kevin Ollie preached the importance of toughness. He wanted his team to set the tone early with energetic and physical play.
The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team appeared to have taken the advice of their head coach when they took the floor on Saturday afternoon against Ohio State.
Playing in their on-campus home, Gampel Pavilion, for the first time since Nov. 17, the Huskies played with an energy from the tip that had not been there in recent games.
They were able to ride that hot start to a 75-55 blowout of Ohio State.
“I thought we came out very aggressively from the start,” Kevin Ollie said. “We didn’t have too many keys; it was just ‘Hit First.’”
UConn (6-3) got off to a rollicking start. After winning the tip, Daniel Hamilton found Amida Brimah for their patented alley-oop to open the scoring. Shonn Miller got going early, throwing down a vicious dunk and showing off post moves to get easy buckets. Ollie had mentioned all week that Miller needed to be more active and involved in the first half.
“I knew I had to be more aggressive,” Miller said. “We switched up what we were doing in practice. We were tired of starting off slow and having to fight our way back into games, so we let everything loose, played free and played the game.”
Miller finished 11 points and a game high nine rebounds.
The Huskies scored 45 points in the first half, on 63 percent shooting. It’s the first time UConn has shot 60 percent from the field since the 2012-13 season.
“UConn really came out and attacked us,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
It was Rodney Purvis who set the tone for the Huskies. After struggling for much UConn’s loss to Maryland, Purvis came out with an aggression that sparked the team. He finished with 13 points, six rebounds, five assists and two steals.
Ohio State (4-5) was able to trade punches for the first 10 minutes of the game. However, a 25-8 run to end the half pushed UConn over the top. The game was never in doubt from there.
“They got rolling. That was one of best first halves of basketball I’ve seen in a long time, in terms of their ability to make difficult shots,” Matta said.
The Huskies really got going once Omar Calhoun took the floor. In 26 minutes, Calhoun knocked down all five of his shots, including four three-pointers to add 14 key bench points. It was his best scoring game since the 2013-14 season. It was the other aspects of his game that stood out to Ollie.
“I know Omar can punch. I want him to play defense. He can do that every night. That’s what I’m looking for from Omar. This is great, I’ll take 14 points, but I’ll take all the things he brought, the toughness things,” Ollie said.
UConn held a commanding 45-24 lead at the half. However, Ohio State was able to mount a response in the second. The Huskies opened the half shooting 1-11, including a stretch where they missed eight straight looks. The Buckeyes went on an 11-2 run to cut the lead to 12.
“We were getting good looks. I couldn’t complain,” Ollie said. “At the end of the second half, the basketball gods gave us 12 shots we made in a row. So I really appreciate the basketball gods.”
The Huskies got a big boost from guard Jalen Adams. The freshman played his career high in minutes, 29, scored 11 points and added five assists.
“He’s getting better and better and better, right in front of everybody’s eyes,” Ollie said.
UConn was able to get back into the win column with their best shooting night since the 2012-13 season. The victory improves UConn record against Big 10 schools to 2-1 on the season.
“I thought everyone played free, they played fast, but we also played physical. That’s what we were promoting these last few days in practice,” Ollie said. “Our guys really responded.”
After lackadaisical stretches against Syracuse, Gonzaga, and Maryland, it was a reassuring sight to see UConn play all-out basketball for 40 minutes. Against a team like Ohio State, young and inexperienced, having the mental strength to handle business in such convincing fashion is a big sign of growth.
“I really like how we responded. In practice, it was just hitting. It wasn’t anything special. It’s going to pay dividends for us,” Ollie said.
UConn is next in action Sunday, Dec. 20 when they host UMass-Lowell at the XL Center.