In the long annals of UConn basketball history, this afternoon's matinee at Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport will hopefully go down as a footnote in the 2013-14 season and not as a harbinger of things to come for the UConn basketball program.
Pardon my mixing UConn sports metaphors, but Webster Bank Arena must be the biggest energy vampire in New England. I thought Hartford brought a piss poor crowd atmosphere, but at least the fans who come out to the XL Center know the chants, get loud when the situation demands it and avoid tacky moves like the wave, which the Bridgeport faithful busted out today.
I was watching the game on ESPN3, so my knowledge of the parking situation and the amenities within the arena is pretty much limited to what I saw the beat writers say on Twitter, but as far as the crowd itself, I remember hearing the crowd get really loud exactly once. There was a sequence midway through the second half where UConn asserted itself, Napier and Giffey made a couple of awesome plays and the Huskies took control of the game once and for all. The crowd was as loud as they'd been the whole game, but then an Eastern Washington player scored a basket, and the place fell dead silent again.
As for the rest of the game?
Loudest moment for crowd: Giffey 3. Second-loudest moments: both T-shirt tosses.— Ed Daigneault (@EdDaigneault) December 28, 2013
So obviously that's less than ideal. The one positive I did notice was the strobe light treatment WBA gave UConn during the team intros. That's something Gampel and Hartford can't do, and as I've written before, it's a feature UConn should definitely look into as part of future facility upgrades.
Now all of that is just my opinion. Will the university consider today's Bridgeport experiment a success? My guess is they probably will. The game did produce the largest crowd in WBA history, and if some of the wealthy Fairfield County fans who attended liked what they saw, then maybe Warde will be able to milk a few million dollars out of them to support the athletics department in the future.
I guess we'll see how that turns out in the future, but regardless, if UConn does decide to do Bridgeport again, I just hope they handle it exactly the way they did this year. One game over winter break against a random mid-major opponent who students won't mind missing at Gampel.
All of that being said, how about the game itself? Probably the most notable thing that happened at the beginning of the game was Niels Giffey being inserted into the starting lineup in place of Omar Calhoun, who has been struggling to find his shot so far this season. Amida Brimah also started for the second game in a row, but only wound up playing five minutes after committing two quick fouls early.
UConn got off to a lousy start, turning the ball over seven times in the first half, but they shot at a high percentage and eventually pulled away in the second half. When all was said and done, UConn shot 45 percent from the floor and had five players score in double figures.
Probably the most encouraging performances of the day came from Calhoun and Phillip Nolan, who seem to have responded to their being benched by picking up their games in a big way. Calhoun scored 12 points and grabbed 6 rebounds in 20 minutes of play, while Nolan scored a career-high 11 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and blocked 2 shots, all while only committing one foul.
Nolan's performance is especially encouraging given that he also scored 8 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in just 13 minutes off the bench in UConn's last game against Washington last Sunday. If Nolan can keep contributing like this, there's a good chance he could earn his spot back in the starting lineup.
Calhoun may face a much steeper climb to earn his starting spot back, however, because Niels Giffey has consistently been one of the country's most efficient players, and today was no exception. Giffey scored 13 points on 4-for-5 shooting, he made his only three-point attempt, and he was also a perfect 4-for-4 from the free throw line, he grabbed 4 rebounds, blocked 3 shots and grabbed 3 steals.
Honestly, what more could you ask? That's about as well-balanced a performance you could possibly expect at any level of basketball, and the fact that Giffey has improved his game to this level is really remarkable.
Shabazz Napier once again led the team with 15 points and 9 assists, just missing out on a double-double, Ryan Boatright also had 14 points and DeAndre Daniels had 8 points and 4 rebounds. Kentan Facey, Terrence Samuel, Leon Tolksdorf and the walk-ons all got into the game as well, but the only one to score was Tolksdorf, who hit a basket in the game's waning moments. Facey also grabbed 2 offensive rebounds in 3 minutes of play, but missed two put-back attempts.
With the win, UConn improves to 11-1 on the season, while Eastern Washington falls to 5-6. UConn will now open conference play at Houston on New Years Eve, and the game is set to tip off at 9 p.m.