Coming off a winless, two-game road trip, UConn needed a victory Thursday against UCF. The Knights made it tough, especially with a 15-3 run late in the first half, but the Huskies walked away with a 67-60 win at Gampel Pavilion.
The Huskies improve to 10-7 on the season and 3-2 in the American Athletic Conference after knocking off the team with both the conference's best offense and worst defense. UCF (9-9, 2-4) entered the game averaging more than 75 points per game in conference play. UConn's third-ranked defense, which entered allowing 55.8 points per game in conference play, won the battle.
Tim Fontenault, Elan-Paolo DeCarlo and Matt Gionfriddo focused their latest discussion on Thursday's victory, the rise of Omar Calhoun, where UConn goes from here and the idea of playing more games at Gampel Pavilion.
Elan-Paolo DeCarlo: First things first, it was damn good to be back at Gampel Pavilion. This is above my pay grade, but every UConn home game should be played on campus. Down with the XL Center, forget about the Webster Bank Arena, UConn is in Storrs and that's where the games should be played.
As for the game itself, the obvious highlight, at least early, was the continued hot shooting. They knocked down 10 of 20 threes against Stanford and brought that marksmanship back home. Hitting 10 of 17 first half threes, the Husky offense operated with a lot of space. Omar Calhoun got the action going, Ryan Boatright hit 4 of 4, Daniel Hamilton and Rodney Purvis each got in on the fun. This team, the offense specifically, is really fun to watch when the ball starts going in the net.
Tim Fontenault: I will always fight the good fight in favor of all games at Gampel Pavilion. I'm sorry to the people who want to drive the shorter distance to Hartford. It's a burden on the players and a burden on the students, and the atmosphere is entirely different. Shabazz Napier used to vent to me about this last year and now Boatright is echoing the sentiment: play every game at Gampel.
As for the offense, loved the 3-point shooting in the first half. Omar Calhoun played out of his mind, and it was nice to see Daniel Hamilton produce.
I was most impressed with Hamilton in the second half, when he only scored two points but had five rebounds, four assists and three steals. He was leading the charge in transition, and that coupled with the early hot streak from deep for the Huskies, opened the game up for Amida Brimah.
Matt Gionfriddo: When we hit 3-pointers, we become a very difficult team to defend. Like last season, a majority of the reason why we won was due to our threats from behind the arc, and if we can continue this hot shooting, it will add another dimension that will greatly benefit us. Granted, UCF does rank last in the American in field goal percentage defense, but it was nice to see us cash in on those open shots.
And then I think Ollie touched on this after the game, but our defense was very very tough last night. UCF is a team that came in ranked first in points per game in the conference, and to limit them to just 60 points and just 36.8 percent from the field is impressive. Overall, this was a nice way to come back from our long stretch away from Gampel, and while the difference was only seven, I will certainly take it.
DeCarlo: Is it possible that Omar is the MVP of the this team since he's returned? The boost he's given on the offensive end has been huge.
Last night during that sequence with the Calhoun three, dunk then Hamilton fast break dunk, I was reminded of the potential this team has. When they click and use the talent they have, they can be special. It's just a matter of doing it consistently.
Also, big time Amida Brimah defensive performance last night. He finished with four blocks and was super active in the paint. Great to see.
Gionfriddo: Hamilton all night was just fantastic. He was a clear matchup problem for UCF, and he took full advantage of it filling the stat sheet nicely. While his second half was fantastic, giving perfect pass after perfect pass to Brimah, I loved the way he shot it in the first. Both his 3-pointers were shots that he's given up in the past, but last night he confidently rose up and knocked it down without hesitation.
He has the ability to be an x-factor for this team down the stretch, especially with Omar now being a legit scoring threat.
Fontenault: Yes, Omar is the MVP since his return, or at least since Temple. He has his shot back, he has the confidence, and it's lifting everyone around him. When he gets going, the team and the crowd both get going. Critical addition to the rotation.
To hold UCF like that was amazing. That was a seven-point game but felt like much more until B.J. Taylor hit the corner three off the inbound (lol) to cut it to seven in the final minute. UConn's defense was strong in the second half. The Knights would be a much better team if they could play defense. Have to give the Huskies a lot of credit for that effort last night.
Key stats, in my opinion, were points off turnovers and turnover-assist ratio for UConn. The Huskies scored 18 points on 12 UCF turnovers and had 21 assists (I'll double check that when I get home) to eight turnovers. Huge.
Gionfriddo: I've jokingly been saying how Omar is our best player (no offense Boat) but I think a serious case can be made that he's been the most important since his return. Three-point shooting was such a glaring issue at the start of the season, and for him to come back from injury and knock down bit shots has been absolutely enormous.
DeCarlo: Sitting at 10-7, this team isn't out of the woods yet. Kevin Ollie seemed relieved last night, but thoroughly drained at the presser. This team has a lot of fight left ahead. All game, he up stomping around, screaming, being his general intense self. It was great to see that passion. His team responded with the type of performance they desperately needed.
Gionfriddo: One of the big things about Omar coming back and playing the way he's been playing is what it does for everyone else. Now, Samuel doesn't need to be someone we have to look at for scoring on offense. He can focus on defense and play the point to allow for Boat to play off the ball, and if he scores like 6 points, then that's great.
And then it greatly reduces the minutes that Cassell has to play. If Cassell can come in and hit a three here and there, then that's fine, but we don't really need him for scoring.
So thank you, O.
Fontenault: Nowhere near out of the woods. UConn has a lot of work to do.
You're right, Matt. I feel like there's been too much reliance on Boatright when UConn struggles, and that's good for no one, especially Boatright.
When they get production from Hamilton, Calhoun and Purvis, like last night, that takes the pressure off Boatright, who's still got his points, and it opens the game up for Brimah. Scary.
Gionfriddo: Yeah I mean we still have a ton of work to do and March and the AAC tournament is still a long way away, but hopefully this is where we really hit our stride.
We have USF coming up on Sunday which needs to be a win and then we have a road trip to Cincy and Houston that will say a lot about where we're at and where we're headed.
Fontenault: Definitely. Everyone should be happy about Thursday's result but has to keep in mind that it's still a tough road. The Bulls are always a headache for UConn, and that road trip is critical. Both those games were losses on the road last year.