Even with its depth hamstrung by the temporary(?) suspension of Ryan Boatright, UConn looked at its best over the final 15 minutes of Saturday's 67-53 victory over Notre Dame. The teams were tied with 16:30 left; UConn went on a 12-4 run, withstood a 5-0 Irish mini-run, then closed with a beautiful 16-2 streak to push the Huskies back into the top four of the Big East.
In perhaps the most encouraging performance of the season, the Huskies got a little something from seven of the eight players who suited up; but the story of the game was the brilliance of the previously-dormant duo of Alex Oriakhi (12 points, 7 rebounds, 2 blocks in 24 minutes) and Roscoe Smith (10 points, 6 rebounds in 15 minutes), who gave Jim Calhoun the spark UConn needed to overwhelm the undersized Irish.
There have been questions all year long about the apparent ability of UConn's post players, which hasn't - Andre Drummond's monster dunks aside - translated into on-court dominance yet. This one game, against a Notre Dame team without a ton of size, doesn't necessarily answer those questions.
But Oriakhi has now had two excellent games in a row, while Drummond (10 points and 13 rebounds) continues to get better. Add Smith as a rebounder/toughness guy (he had six FT attempts, mostly after picking up offensive boards), and occasional contributions from the rest of the rotation? You've got a team that can win when Shabazz Napier and Jeremy Lamb are merely average, as they were today, and a team that can be a juggernaut when the backcourt gets it going.
Even after a comfortable win on the road in the Big East, Calhoun said after the game that UConn can get better.
Still, it's hard not to picture this as a turning-point game. After struggling again in the first half, the Huskies came out with a dedicated offensive game plan (work the ball inside) and turned up the intensity on defense, even forcing a few rare turnovers. There aren't many teams who can match Drummond and Oriakhi's size and strength, and if it took a couple bumps on the New Jersey Turnpike to inspire them, so be it.
After a two-game losing streak, UConn has put itself in position to be in great shape come February 1. The Huskies have just two conference games over the next two weeks - home games against Cincinnati on Wednesday and this same Notre Dame team Jan. 29. (There's also a road game at a sneaky-good Tennessee team next Saturday, which should be a great test.) Hold serve at home, and the Huskies can be 6-2 going into the murderous four-game stretch that kicks off the month (at Georgetown/Seton Hall/at Louisville/at Syracuse).
Below the jump, some assorted thoughts (and grades) on the individual players.
Shabazz Napier (40 minutes: 16 points, 5-11 FG, 1-5 3PFG, 5-8 FT, 3 rebounds, 5 assists)
Just one turnover for 'Bazz, and he did his usual 'Bazz things throughout the game, which includes lots of off-balance 3s. Still, he was money from mid-range, and he got to the line for six attempts during UConn's game-clinching 16-2 run.
Jeremy Lamb (40 minutes: 6 points, 3-11 FG, 0-4 3PFG, 3 rebounds, 7 assists)
Lamb kind of laid back in this one, perhaps because he had to play 40 minutes with Boatright out. Notre Dame guarded him well, and seemed to knock him off his game. Luckily, Lamb contributed in other ways (assists, defense), notably finding Drummond for a momentum-shifting alley-oop after the ND crowd got loud for the first time after the Irish cut UConn's second-half lead to four (16-2 run ensued over the next seven minutes).
Andre Drummond (36 minutes: 10 points, 5-12 FG, 13 rebounds (4 OR), 2 blocks)
Drummond continued his soul-eating tour of college basketball by being a much larger human being than any of the other human beings on the court. The rebounding numbers (against a team he should dominate for rebounds) are just flat impressive, although Drummond probably tried to do too much offensively, forcing up a couple shots. But I can't really argue with anything else he did, including a nifty 2-guard-esque finish on the break early in the first half. The big fella makes three players who will probably be playing 35+ minutes in every tournament game.
Niels Giffey (27 minutes: 7 points, 3-5 FG, 1-2 3PFG, 5 rebounds (1 OR), 1 steal)
Niels Templar finally hit one of those open 3s on the wing, so he gets an automatic B- for that. Bump it up a half-grade for the boards, although honestly, if you told me Giffey played 27 minutes, I don't think I would've believed you. Quiet, but nice performance from Giffey, adding to his glue-guy legend.
Alex Oriakhi (24 minutes: 12 points, 5-8 FG, 2-2 FT, 7 rebounds (1 OR), 2 blocks, 2 turnovers)
Oriakhi looked like the Alex of 2010-11 today, using his size to his advantage, and even scoring with his back to the basket. As noted here, Oriakhi is probably not going to reach his rebounding totals of a season ago because there are fewer to go around. But right now, the junior is in a nice rhythm (even hitting a nice 12-footer), and today he was much more aggressive on the boards. More games like this, please.
Roscoe Smith (15 minutes: 10 points, 2-3 FG, 6-6 FT, 6 rebounds (3 OR))
This game turned when Smith came in to, as Calhoun mentioned postgame, give UConn a little matchup advantage in the post. Smith's athleticism was too much for ND to handle, as he was all over the court grabbing rebounds. All three of his offensive rebounds led to points during UConn's first of two second-half runs. Big-time spark - now let's see it a few games in a row. (Need we not mention the great, abbreviated Tuff McJuice Surge Of January 2011?)
DeAndre Daniels (13 minutes: 2 points, 1-2 FG, 0-1 3PFG, 1 rebound (1 OR))
Daniels started, but didn't do much, and saw most of his minutes go to Roscoe in the second half. As noted in TheOpenThread, Daniels hasn't hit a 3-pointer since the exhibition games. UConn definitely needs more consistent scoring from its wing players, but Calhoun will turn to Roscoe's defense-and-garbage-points package every time until Daniels can get it going offensively.
Tyler Olander (5 minutes: 4 points, 1-2 FG, 2-2 FT, 4 rebounds (3 OR)
This grade is given on a pro-rated basis, because Olander just killed it in limited action despite battling a heel injury. Using the magic of extrapolation, Olander would have grabbed 32 rebounds if he had played 40 minutes. He also had a monster dunk, somehow.
Next up: UConn hosts Cincinnati at Gampel Pavilion Wednesday night at 7 p.m. on ESPN2. The Bearcats are the only Big East team besides Syracuse with fewer than two conference losses. Cincy beat Villanova earlier this afternoon, 82-78, to improve to 4-1.