Hartford — UConn coach Kevin Ollie has slowly worked his 7-foot center Amida Brimah back into the Huskies’ lineup since he was cleared to play after suffering a right-finger injury a few days before Christmas.
Ollie has gradually worked him into the lineup, limiting his minutes on some nights and trying to find some rhythm with him back in the lineup after he missed 11 games.
On Thursday night, Brimah had his best game of the season when UConn needed it most. Brimah scored 16 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked five shots as the Huskies beat No. 21 SMU, 68-62, in front of a sell-out crowd of 15,564 at the XL Center.
“He impacted the game on both ends. He was phenomenal,” SMU coach Larry Brown said of Brimah.
Sixteen points from Brimah was the most he scored since scoring 18 against Maine in the season opener. Eight rebounds — six on the offensive end — was also a season high and the most he’s recorded since last season at Memphis on Feb. 19 when he had 12.
Brimah also played a season-high 33 minutes and only committed one foul.
“When you have Amida playing pretty much the whole game, I can play him 33 minutes and he didn’t get in foul trouble,” Ollie said. “I don’t think he had a foul in the first half. Sixteen (points), eight (rebounds) and five blocks and, I mean, it should have been 12 blocks because they were just throwing it down over the backboard when he was in there.”
Ollie joked after the game that they were looking up the last time Brimah didn’t have a foul in the first half.
Having Brimah play a large chunk of minutes is going to be key for the Huskies over the final five games of the season and into the conference tournament. Brimah is one of the best shot-blockers in the country and it makes it difficult for teams to score in the paint when he is on the court.
“When I’m on the court I just try to be a great motivator and just help my team do better,” Brimah said.
UConn (19-7, 9-4 the American) was out-rebounded by SMU, 35-33, but Ollie was pleased with the way Brimah battled against some of the big men SMU (21-4, 9-4 the American) had on the floor.
“Just to keep him out of foul trouble and him playing the way he did; just the energy, just playing through the physicality,” Ollie said of Brimah’s performance. “[Jordan] Tolbert was going to his chest. He got a couple charges.”
And of course, the most emphatic basket Brimah scored came from an alley-oop from an Omar Calhoun lob. The dunk put UConn up by nine points with 4:45 left and it sent the crowd at the XL Center into a frenzy.
“Omar told me anytime I set the screen I got to roll all the time because he’s going to look for me,” Brimah said. “So I rolled and he just got me and it set up good momentum for the whole team.”
Brimah is starting to find his rhythm when he is on the court. After the game, he admittedly said he was focused on getting back in shape. Now that he’s played six games since returning from injury, he’s starting to see results.
“When I first got back, I was trying to get in shape and stuff,” Brimah said. “So I wasn’t really ready, in game shape yet. So it took some time for me to get back in the process and I’m getting better at it.”