We were only down 5 at the half, but I was catatonic.
Kevin Ollie's UConn Huskies were coming off back to back losses to lowly Houston and an up and coming SMU team- both on the road. Luckily they were coming home to our on-campus arena, Gampel Pavilion, where all would be well. A decent Harvard team was coming into town, but the Crimson would be without their leading scorer and the Husky faithful would undoubtedly bring their A-game to will the Huskies back to victory.
The night got off to an auspicious start. A water main broke and basically the only road in Storrs that leads to Gampel was shut down, causing detours, delays and many of the aforementioned Husky faithful to be waiting in their cars at tip-off.
While the UConn fans weren't able to show up at the start of the game, it looked like the players hadn't either. They committed 11 turnovers, were devoid of anything resembling offensive discipline, and got generally outplayed by an undermanned Harvard team at home. The Huskies were unable to convert breakaways off turnovers and got lazy against Harvard's motion offense.
UConn could ill-afford to lose a third straight game, which would be their fourth of the young season. This team, and a season which began with such high hopes, was suddenly on the brink of collapse. Kevin Ollie noticed his teams sluggish performance and despite all the pressure, suggested they relax. "There was a lot of extra weight on our shoulders," Ollie said. "I just told the guys to relax at halftime and play the game. Win or lose, you just play together and play relaxed. When you play relaxed you have a better opportunity to play to your strengths."
The second half started with more of the same, but eventually Kevin Ollie's words took root. The Huskies jumped to a 9-point lead after an 11-2 run and while Harvard cut it close towards the end, at the final buzzer UConn earned a hard fought win, 61-56.
By this early point in the season UConn had already played five games which were decided by three points or less, going 4-1. This was not one of those games, but the experience playing these types of games has proven valuable and should continue to do so in March. Beating Florida in December was amazing, and certainly featured an incredible moment, but when I think about a time where this UConn team demonstrated their heart it was in this gritty comeback win against Harvard.
Junior Guard Ryan Boatright emphasized the importance of this win from the players' perspective, "for us to get that win gives us our confidence back, gives us our swagger back and just gets us back on the positive end of things."
Kevin Ollie knew it was a meaningful win for the Huskies, "It's exactly what we needed, this team is going to test if you're going to be disciplined. And we wanted to be competitive but we also wanted to stay in our principles."
It wasn't pretty, but the fact that the Huskies played like crap but still found a way to win meant a lot to our coach "We recovered. That's the biggest thing, I'm going to keep saying it over and over again," he said. "You've got to recover, you've got to respond the right way and you've got to stay together. A lot of guys could have split apart because we had two tough losses, 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. I think this team has the character to win a lot of games."
How many games? That remains to be seen.
Judging by the 7-seed we received in the tournament, and other teams in the American who were slighted by the Selection Committee, UConn certainly did themselves a favor by earning a non-conference Top-40 RPI win for their tournament resume. Just this one game may have pushed UConn to an 8 or 9 and potential second round match-up against a 1-seed. Not to mention the hit on confidence that may have plagued UConn going into their challenging conference slate.
One week later, UConn notched their second win against a ranked opponent, taking down Memphis on the road. The foundation for that win and strong regular season/conference tournament finish was built on the character these guys displayed against Harvard when their entire season was on the ropes.
Quotations in this article are from the ESPN game recap.