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Men's Basketball: UConn beats UCF by 23 for first AAC win

Sports Editor

Published: Saturday, January 11, 2014

Updated: Sunday, January 12, 2014 00:01

Usually it is the team’s guard play that makes the UConn men’s basketball team so tough to beat.

But in Saturday’s 84-61 rout of Central Florida, the Huskies’ first win in the American Athletic Conference and 1,600th all time, the game was won in the paint.

Against the best rebounding team in the conference, UConn (13-3, 1-2 AAC) grabbed 50 rebounds – setting a new single-game high under coach Kevin Ollie – and blocked 14 shots while holding the Knights (9-5, 1-2 AAC) to just 34 rebounds and two blocks. UConn accumulated 40 points in the paint and 21 second-chance points on 18 offensive rebounds.

“We just tried to establish our rebounding,” said DeAndre Daniels, who finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and four blocks. “If we did that, we knew we had a chance of winning the game, so that was our main focus.”

Amidst one of the best team efforts the Huskies have executed this season was also one of the best single-game performances, as freshman center Amida Brimah stole the show, setting career highs with 20 points and eight rebounds, while also blocking five shots.

“Amida just had a terrific game,” Ollie said. “I can’t ask for anything else. And then Phil [Nolan] came in and played a great game – a backup role, but a great game. And that’s what we’re going to need to have.

“It’s just good to have somebody getting offensive rebounds. We’re last in the American Conference in offensive rebounding, and just seeing somebody go get us another possession is very key.”

Ollie was forced to call timeout two minutes into the game as UCF jumped out to a 6-0 lead. Out of the timeout, Daniels drilled back-to-back 3-pointers to tie the game, and the Huskies started to take control.

Eugene McCrory gave the Knights the lead with 15:04 remaining in the half, but that lead vanished less than 20 seconds later, and UCF never got it back.

The Knights were able to keep the game within single digits for most of the half, but Nolan’s dunk with 1:14 left sent UConn into the locker room with a 35-24 lead.

The theme for UConn this season has been to get out in front by a lot and then quickly let the opponent back in the game. UCF threatened early in the second half, pulling within six points with 13:16 to play. But after Ollie took a 30-second timeout, UConn stuck it to the Knights. After Nolan hit two free throws with 8:27 remaining, the Huskies’ lead never dropped back into single digits.

“When we had a chance to knock a team out, we knocked them out,” Ollie said. “We didn’t let them back off the ropes and get in the middle of the ring again. We knocked them out, and that’s what we want to continue to do when we have teams on the ropes.”

One of the keys to knocking out the Knights was to eliminate their biggest threat: leading scorer Isaiah Sykes. Sykes, who Ollie described as “the Ace of Spades,” finished with 17 points and four assists, but the combined defensive effort of players like Lasan Kromah, Niels Giffey and Shabazz Napier caused him to disappear from the game at times, and UCF had no one to pick up the slack.

“We wanted to take him out of the game,” Ollie said. “And we didn’t want [Kasey] Wilson to affect the game at the 3-point line. I think we accomplished both of those. They both got their points, but they didn’t establish a rhythm.”

Production came in all forms Saturday night. Napier finished with a double-double of 14 points and 11 assists. Nolan provided 15 big minutes off the bench, grabbing five rebounds to go along with his eight points. Even freshmen reserves Terrence Samuel (four points on 2 of 2 shooting) and Kentan Facey (two points and three rebounds) made big impacts in their three minutes of action.

But Brimah’s performance was the story of the night. He will almost always get his shot-blocking production, but his offensive performance Saturday night was unforeseen. With UCF unable to match up with him physically, the path to the bucket was almost always open for Brimah.

The freshman put a cap on his performance with 2:43 left in the game. Standing just inside the 3-point line, Brimah collected a pass from Napier, took two massive strides without dribbling the ball and then unleashed a one-handed dunk that brought Gampel Pavilion to its feet.

“We were waiting for that one game for it to go over to the offense,” Napier said. “Defensively, he’s one of the best. Today he was in the groove, and he was knocking down everything he did. We just gave him an opportunity to get alley-oops and easy dunks, and he just ran with it.”

UConn took the confidence it built during the closely-contested 61-56 win over Harvard Wednesday night and turned it into a blowout win over a conference opponent. Now, it must take the momentum and confidence that may have been built Saturday and turn it into production during a two-game stretch that features a road game at No. 24 Memphis (12-3, 3-1 AAC) and a battle at Gampel with 12th-ranked Louisville (13-3, 2-1 AAC), the defending national champion.

“We’re not looking at it as something that we’re scared of,” Ollie said. “We’re going to go meet our giant, we’re not waiting for our giant. We’re going to go meet them, and it’s going to be a hell of a task.”

 

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