Let's utilize some critical reading skills, y'all: just add the words "although Providence inexplicably played mostly man-to-man defense, and played it exceptionally poorly" to the end of every sentence in the ensuing brief recap. Deal? Deal.
It was more of the same for the first 17 or 18 minutes of the first half tonight at Gampel Pavilion. UConn's shots clanked out over and over again, the Huskies had no offensive rhythm, and despite holding Providence's standout Marshon Brooks relatively in check, this had all the makings of a frustrating, back-and-forth struggle with one of the bottom-five Big East team.
Then, on four straight possessions late in the first half, Jamal Coombs-McDaniel did something we haven't seen in 14 months of the Tuff McJuice Experience: he scored the ball, and made it look good and easy each time.
It seems like Coombs-McDaniel has gotten lost in the shuffle ever since about Game 4 of his freshman season, when we realized he was the latest in a line of "supposed great 3-point shooters who never make a 3" (RIP Scottie Haralson).
Tonight, in a game where UConn once again started out looking totally lost on offense, Coombs-McDaniel did something novel: he moved toward the basket, tried to find some open space (not difficult, because Kemba was doubled per usual), and showed some aggressiveness and strong-finishing skills around the basket. The result - eight points on four possessions, a huge momentum swing and a 33-30 UConn lead at halftime.
UConn kept up that efficiency in the second half, averaging around 1.30 points per possesion, and ran away with the game late, eventually defeating the pesky Friars, 75-57, to improve to 7-5 in the Big East (where they are tied with four teams for fifth place, because the Big East is WHERE PARITY HAPPENS). Here's hoping that wasn't just a fluky good shooting night against a poor defense.
Coombs-McDaniel's play gave UConn breathing room, more margin for error, and in that margin we got a view of UConn 2.0, the team that needs to exist if the Huskies are going to make any kind of noise over the season's final six weeks:
Kemba Walker was efficient and exceptional tonight, scoring 22 points on 10 field goals (he was 7-10). Walker indeed looked like Maui Kemba, making his trademark pull-up jumper, distributing the ball beautifully (7 assists) and patiently waiting to take his shots at the right time. It remains to be seen if this is a one-game return a la DePaul (see disclaimer at the beginning of this article), or whether Stella got her groove back, but it was very nice to see tonight.
Charles Okwandu, as strange as it is to say, was really, really solid tonight. The big fella had 6 points, 11 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 assists. He was decent defensively, very strong on the boards, and not a net drain offensively (though if he ever takes that 16-footer again, I will throw things.) I said in TheOpenThread that it might actually be true that Okwandu is the best big on the team right now. I will leave that terrifying thought for you to consider. But even if Alex Oriakhi is going to disappear, Okwandu can maybe possibly mitigate that by offering occasional Division I-caliber play. Maybe.
And then there was Coombs-McDaniel, who finished with 25 points and 8 rebounds, shooting 10-for-17 from the field (mostly layups). The sophomore played possessed, and surely has earned some more playing time. As long as he stops settling for 3-pointers, he (and his 6-7 length) can be very useful on both ends of the floor.
As for the rest of the team...Shabazz Napier was OK (2-for-3 from 3, plus 3 assists; but 4 turnovers). The less said about Jeremy Lamb, Roscoe Smith and Alex Oriakhi's nights, the better (though Lamb did at least hit a clutch 3 while the game was still in doubt late in the second half).
Winning tonight against an overmatched Providence team - even one with the Brawny paper towel guy - doesn't make the warning signs disappear. If tonight's hot shooting doesn't continue when Georgetown inevitably throws the 2-3 at them on Wednesday, we'll be back to negativity in no time.
Frankly, I am expecting a red-hot Georgetown team to tear UConn apart with their frustratingly hard-to-beat suburban high-school offense.
But for the first time since the Marquette win on Jan. 25, I have nothing but positives to take away from a UConn game. That's a nice feeling...although Providence inexplicably played mostly man-to-man defense, and played it exceptionally poorly.