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Men's Basketball: UConn tops E. Washington in first regular season game at Webster Bank Arena

Senior Staff Writer

Published: Saturday, December 28, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 31, 2013 20:12

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Playing a regular season game at the 10,000-seat capacity Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport for the first time in program history, No. 15 UConn cruised to an 82-65 win over Eastern Washington Eagles Saturday in front of a crowd of 9,274 to improve to 11-1 on the season.

The game marked the first time UConn has played a home game in a venue other than in Storrs and Hartford since Jan. 3, 1987 at the New Haven Coliseum.

“I want to thank the crowd,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “I think there were a lot of families in the audience that probably have never seen us play before. I felt the energy from the crowd and it was just a great family atmosphere.”

“It was great, I think we should definitely do it,” said Shabazz Napier, who led the team with 15 points and nine assists. “For the excitement, they started flicking the lights at halftime which is cool. It got the crowd excited. There’s a lot of things Bridgeport can do that XL and Gampel can’t. But at the end of the day, I love Gampel. I’d rather play in Gampel every single game.”

For EWU, who has played only three games in front of a crowd above 2,000 this season, the game offered a rare experience.

“In the life as a mid-major, we don’t play in front of 10,000 people all the time on TV,” Eagles head coach Jim Hayford said. “But you are going to have to play some of these games where you get some money that helps your whole athletic department.”

Four other Huskies also scored in double figures besides Napier, including Phil Nolan, who was replaced by Amida Brimah in the starting lineup for the second straight game. Nolan went on to score a career-high 11 points and grabbed six rebounds in 22 minutes played.

“Phil was great,” Ollie said. “He responded the right way. That’s what I like. It wasn’t a ‘benching.’ He was out of the starting lineup, but he had his career-high. It’s not about who’s starting, it’s about who’s taking care of their minutes.”

“All our big men are good,” Nolan said. “Anybody can start on any given day. I’m not looking at it as a negative. I’m just looking at it as a positive and try harder.”

Nolan also had a perfect shooting day by going 2-for-2 from the field and 7-for-7 from the free throw line.

“That’s one thing we do in practice a lot, we always get up a lot of free throws,” said Nolan, who shot around just 53 percent from the line last season. “[Ollie] is really big on free throws. You can lose a game on free throws so it’s definitely something I try to concentrate on during a game.”

The Huskies, who went 22-for-25 from the line last game, shot 25-for-27 Saturday against the Eagles.

“We were outstanding from the free throw line again,” Ollie said. “We’re not settling for the contested 3s… We’re getting back to basics and we’re getting to the rim.”

Another change Ollie made to the lineup was to insert Niels Giffey over the struggling Omar Calhoun, who shot just 28 percent over the last five games, to start the game.

“Coach Ollie talked to me before today and told me he was not going to start me today but he wanted me to bring that energy and get it going, be aggressive, and stuff like that,” said Calhoun, who scored 12 points on 5-for-9 shooting in 20 minutes played.

“It was a big character game for us,” Ollie said. “And two of the guys who showed great character were Omar and Phil.”

Giffey, meanwhile, played 30 minutes and finished with 13 points, four rebounds, three steals and a team-high three blocks. Boatright was the other double-digit scorer with 14 points of his own.

The Eagles, who were 1-18 all-time against ranked opponents coming into the game, hung in there against the Huskies for most of the game, but better ballhandling and rebounding by UConn in the second half eventually blew the game open.

“To give up 10 offensive rebounds in the first half is unacceptable,” Ollie said. “Especially with all the time that we have invested into rebounding. But in the second half, we limited them to six and ended up winning the rebounding battle (39-36). That’s a good victory for us.”

UConn will return to action on New Year’s Eve when the team travels to Hofheinz Pavilion in Houston, Texas to begin the inaugural American Athletic Conference play against the Cougars. All of the Huskies’ remaining games, except the one against Harvard on Jan. 8, will be within the new conference.

Tipoff for the Houston game is scheduled for 9 p.m.

 

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