Men's Basketball: UConn outlasts rival Harvard in must-win game
Senior captain Donnell Beverly, junior captain and Big East championship MVP Kemba Walker and senior center Charles Okwandu hoist the conference title trophy following their 69-66 victory over Louisville at Madison Square Garden. ED RYAN/The Daily Campus
Shabazz Napier said that the stakes were so high heading into UConn's 61-56 win over Harvard Wednesday night at Gampel Pavilion that if the Huskies (12-3, 0-2 American Athletic Conference) had lost, they thought they might die.
UConn entered its final non-conference game on a two-game losing streak, dropping games at Southern Methodist and Houston to begin AAC play. Wednesday was never going to be an easy task against a rival, and the Crimson, playing without leading scorer Wesley Saunders, refused to give the game to the Huskies.
"It was definitely tough," said Napier, who hit two big 3-pointers late to keep the Huskies ahead. "Like I said out there, we're going to go through bumps in life. It don't have to be about sports; it could be about life in general. We just have to learn to bounce back from it and learn from it."
Harvard went into halftime with a 31-26 lead, despite UConn shooting 57.9 percent from the field in the first half. Eleven turnovers did not help the Huskies' cause in the opening 20 minutes.
UConn improved in the second half, only turning the ball over four times while blocking six shots and holding the Crimson to 26.7 percent shooting. But the game still came down to one last possession.
Siyani Chambers blew past several Huskies to get to the basket and cut UConn's lead to 59-56 with 10 seconds remaining. On the ensuing inbound pass, Harvard's pressure forced Niels Giffey to come sprinting to the ball from half-court, and his momentum caused him to travel, giving the Crimson a chance to tie the game with 9.1 seconds left.
On the resulting possession, Harvard wanted to find Chambers, who led all scorers with 21 points, but the ball ended up in the hands of Brandyn Curry, who succumbed to UConn's pressure. DeAndre Daniels made the steal and then two foul shots to put the game away.
"That last stop is what UConn basketball is all about," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "And we gutted that one out, and I'm proud of my guys. We stuck together, and our recovery is getting better."
Daniels shot 3 of 5 from behind the 3-point line and finished with 11 points, providing a big spark offensively for UConn, but it was his defensive play - four blocks and eight rebounds - that made the biggest difference for the Huskies.
"Those rebounds were crucial for us because they allowed us to get out on the break and kind of stop the bleeding," Ollie said. "DeAndre has to be a big rebounder for us. Eight rebounds should be his minimum. Playing 31 minutes, that should be his minimum. He can do it once he focuses on it."
Daniels struggled on both sides of the ball during UConn's road trip to Texas, but Wednesday's success on offense helped elevate his game on the defensive end of the court as well.
"Y'all got to know that when DeAndre is scoring, whenever the ball goes in for him, that elevates his game on both ends of the floor," Ryan Boatright said.
Amida Brimah, again coming off the bench for the Huskies after getting a taste of being the starting center, helped Daniels disrupt Harvard's attempts to get to the basket, blocking three shots and grabbing four rebounds in 15 minutes before fouling out.
"We've got to keep Amida out of foul trouble," Ollie said. "If we can get that under control...the big fella is working. Every day he comes to work. Every day he has enthusiasm, energy, and he just wants to get better."
UConn ends the non-conference portion of its schedule with a 12-1 record and will now play AAC games for the remainder of the regular season. After an 0-2 conference start, the Huskies' big win over Harvard provides a bit of momentum, but UConn realizes that 0-2 desperately needs to become 1-2 after Saturday's game against Central Florida (9-4, 1-1 AAC) at Gampel Pavilion.
"A lot of guys could have split apart because we had two tough losses," Ollie said. "But these guys, they've got something special, and this season is going to be something special for us if we stick together and we keep playing for one another and understand that we're going to face adversity. But adversity is just temporary. Character lasts forever, and I think this team has the character to win a lot of games."
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