We don’t know how it happened, we don’t know why is happened, but what we do know is that the UConn men’s basketball team is finally starting to play like a real cohesive unit. Their 73-59 win over the Temple Owls (10-8, 1-4 The American) was just their second of the year at Gampel, but it was a win that made a statement to the Husky faithful who trekked to Storrs on a Wednesday night at 9 p.m.: UConn may be starting to figure out just who they are and what they can do.
“We’re staying connected, we’re sharing the basketball, we’re playing with enthusiasm, we’re playing with effort, and we’re playing for each other. That’s the biggest thing I really want to concentrate on,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “They’re really coaching each other and that’s what it takes for us to win games.”
It took a few minutes, but you could immediately tell that something was monumentally different with the Huskies (7-9, 2-3 The American). Maybe it was the disaster of a game at Memphis that finally whipped them into shape, or maybe it was the general sadness and frustration that surrounds a team when they start conference play 0-3.
But an all-around great game against UCF, one of the nation’s top two defensive teams, really instilled some confidence in a young, depleted team on the verge of their season becoming almost irrelevant. Lockdown defense translated to a 9-0 Husky run that took their six-point lead to a 13-point lead in the first half. During that run, UConn held the Owls to 0-for-12 from the field, including 0-for-3 from beyond the arc.
While it can’t be ignored that the guards did a great job setting up plays and controlling the point, it was the bigs who truly made the difference in this game. Amida Brimah started off both halves with an alley-oop and totaled 13 points throughout the game. After keeping UCF’s Tacko Fall in check last game, the confidence clearly carried over.
“When you keep playing better, it follows you to the next game,” Brimah said.
Kentan Facey lead the Huskies with a career-high 23 points on 9-for-11 shooting, including going 5-for-7 from the free throw line. He added 10 rebounds as well to give him his second double-double of the season and the fourth of his career. He displayed more hustle and intuition than anybody else on the court, drawing fouls, getting second-chance rebounds and, more often than not, completing the putback.
“I feel like I’m playing at a different level than I was before, and that’s because my teammates are on me every day to be more aggressive and give me the ball in positions where they know I can score,” Facey said. “When you’ve been through three-and-a-half years of college, it’s really the small things, because everyone on this level is just as big and just as athletic, so you really have to lock in on the small things and the small details.”
Vance Jackson, who has really improved on both sides of the ball since conference play began, didn’t take too many shots, but he hit the ones that counted and focused instead on tight defense. He reached double figures for the seventh time this season, but it’s enhanced by the fact that he was 6-for-9 combined from the floor and from three.
The post defense was impressive. If you wanted to look solely at the block column on the stat sheet, it would be enough confirmation. Brimah had six blocks, Facey had two and Jackson had one for a total of nine, the most since the team recorded 10 against Tulsa on New Year’s Eve.
“He’s a force in there,” Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said of Brimah. “He continued to put his mark on this game had some blocks that seemed to come out of nowhere.”
As a team, UConn held Temple to 23-for-64 (35.9 percent) from the floor and 10-for-34 (29.4 percent) from three, and 3-pointers made up just under half the Owls’ shot total. UConn has been doing a good job at holding opponent’s field goal percentage low (they’re 21st in the nation in that category), but tonight was largely due to Brimah’s presence in the post and Jackson and Facey’s quick and tough defense in the paint and the wings.
On the offensive side, the Huskies has 42 points in the paint, the most since they scored 44 against Division II Chaminade. Ollie is finally seeing the players starting to take the game a lot more seriously, and after a plethora of disappointing losses to start the season, Facey is working hard to make sure that they aren’t in vain.
“It’s everything we’ve been through. We’ve been through a lot of situations where we’re up and then like that, we’re down,” Facey said. “We know that in order for us to come out and have good games, we can’t come out flat first half and try to come back second half. We know we have to play a complete game with complete energy for 40 minutes.”