A win is a win, but they’re not always pretty.
This has been the case for the UConn men’s basketball team the past two games. Overtime wins over Columbia and Monmouth—the first time UConn has had back-to-back overtime games since wins over Providence and USF in 2013—is not the ideal way to recover from an embarrassing blowout against Arkansas.
Head coach Kevin Ollie admitted as much, expressing his disappointment in the team’s defensive effort.
“We got to get our defense better. There can’t be all these blow-by’s, them just getting to our rim,” said Ollie. “I’m a defensive coach, and I just don’t like these numbers that we’re giving up.”
What is apparent, though, is that this year’s UConn team is finding ways to win where last year’s team couldn’t. This is due to a variety of factors, but the energy and intensity from Antwoine Anderson and Mamadou Diarra made all the difference in the game.
Mamadou Diarra, who sat out last year due to knee issues, played a season-high 22 against Monmouth and easily made his case to play more. Though he recorded only three points, he had a team-high seven boards and brought something you can’t measure with statistics—energy.
“That’s my whole goal,” Diarra said. “Sometimes I feel like we start off a little slow, and I just want to get off the bench and bring energy in any way, whether it’s rebounding and diving for balls, taking charges, whatever it takes to bring the energy up, that’s all I want to do.”
Diarra was subbed into Saturday’s game after four minutes with UConn up 9-7. Immediately after coming in, he records an offensive rebound that leads to a Terry Larrier 3-pointer to put UConn up by five. He was subbed out and immediately Monmouth ties the game. He comes back in and the Huskies go on a 7-2 run to put them up 29-22. He records his second foul, gets subbed out for the rest of the half, and Monmouth closes out the half on a 20-7 run to turn a seven-point deficit into a six-point lead.
Diarra started the second half, and UConn scored nine quick points to take a one-point lead. They went up by as much as seven before Diarra picked up his third foul and was sent to the bench again. Monmouth scored seven straight points to take the lead again.
You see the pattern.
Diarra has not gotten many minutes through these eight games—he’s averaging just 10.7 per game—but the lack of playing time isn’t frustrating. Foul trouble is certainly a factor.
“At the end of the day, it’s just coach’s decision, so whatever he thinks is right, I’m just going to keep encouraging my teammates and just keep working,” Diarra said. “I just gotta continue to grow and stay out of foul trouble from now on.”
Graduate transfer Antwoine Anderson had made more of an impact than most were expecting. He’s quietly averaging 10.3 points per game and plays tough defense, which was needed against Monmouth’s Micah Seaborn, who dropped 27 points on 10-for-17 shooting from the floor and 5-for-9 shooting from beyond the arc.
However, 20 of those points came in the first half. Anderson upped the defensive pressure on Seaborn, holding him to five points on five shots the entire second half.
“He keeps the ball in front of him, he’s very smart,” Ollie said of Anderson. “He’s always in position. He has quick feet and he uses his explosion step to get back in front. He never stays down, I mean, he never jumps up and gets off his feet. He’s a sound defender who moves his feet, and that’s what makes you a great defender.”
Anderson has played almost every minute of every game, and with the status of Alterique Gilbert still up in the air, Anderson’s continued toughness is going to be essential.
But the best thing about Anderson’s game? It’s his attitude, Ollie said.
“He has heart, he got pride,” said Ollie. “He came in to do one thing, and it’s for us to get to a tournament game and for us to win. And he’s not worried about scoring, he’s not worrying about nothing. He’s worried about playing defense.”
Anderson noticed that Seaborn didn’t need much space to get his shot off, so crowding him and making him uncomfortable was the key to limiting him in the second half.
The young guys recognize Anderson’s expertise, and after four years of being around the game at the collegiate level, he sees the value in staying loose.
“Mamadou came and talked to me at halftime and he told me like, ‘What’s up, you’re our defensive guy, I need you to go out there and shut him down.’ So that’s what I went out there and tried to do,” said Anderson. “I told them, ‘This is my job, and I’m going to stop him this half.’”
“In the second half, we just realized that we have to play defense in order to win games,” Anderson added. “And we have to have fun. I feel like that’s something that we haven’t been doing recently. So I told everybody, ‘Let’s have fun and play defense, and anything can happen.’”