Hartford-- Even the longest of journeys must begin with a single step. Tonight, UConn took that crucial step forward with a 69-43 victory over USF at the XL Center. It was a night where the Huskies shot an AAC tournament record 55% from the field.
In his first ever postseason game, Daniel Hamilton, who had just been named AAC Rookie of the Year, was the star. He finished with a game high 20 points on 6-8 shooting, including 4-5 from three point range. The freshman knocked down a three on the first possession of the game and from that point on, he played with a confident ease and looseness that belied his youth. "It gave me a whole lot of confidence. I've been struggling from the field, so seeing that one go in, I think it helped me out the rest of the night," Hamilton said. His jumper was pure all night and he knew it. His quick trigger tonight paced the Huskies.
"I could feel the intensity rise tonight. We just had to come out and step up on defense," Hamilton said on the atmosphere of playing for their season. "We had to let our defense translate to offense. We executed really well tonight."
Defensively, UConn was able to completely shutdown the Bulls' attack, holding their opponent scoreless over the first 6:17 of the game. Center Amida Brimah lived up to his billing as conference Defensive Player of the Year, blocking five shots at the rim. The key was his discipline. Brimah only committed two fouls which allowed him to play 30 minutes. He must maintain that same discipline tomorrow night against Cincinnati as his presence changes the whole tenor of this team.
All season long, much of the discussion surrounding this team was secondary scoring. Ryan Boatright averaged over 15 ppg and could be relied upon. The same could not be said about Rodney Purvis, Omar Calhoun and the rest. Tonight, the Huskies had tremendous scoring balance. Three Huskies hit double figures (Purvis, Hamilton and Boat) while two others (Calhoun and Brimah) scored 9. If UConn can replicate that level of offensive socialism through the weekend, it could be all the difference.
After the game, Boatright discussed his teammates' success. "They answered everything I asked them to do. They stepped up, took care of the basketball, played both ends of the floor. They did a great job tonight," he said.
Phil Nolan was once again fantastic tonight. In the past, I have not been shy about criticizing Nolan. Tonight, he grabbed 7 rebounds, a season high, and was swarming on defense. He also drew charges, of course. Having started every game of last year's tournament run, Nolan brings more big-game experience to the floor. Coach Kevin Ollie clearly trusts him in big moments. "I kind of challenged the bigs to rebound more. It was great to see. Phil did an amazing job. It doesn't show in the points, but when I put on the tape when I get to the hotel, I'll bet you every defensive assignment I want, Phil will be there," Ollie said. "He sacrifices his body for this team...That's why I give him the minutes I give him."
Tonight's victory improved UConn's record to 7-1 in the XL Center. Although it was a blowout, this was easily the most important of those wins. "I don't understand why we play so well in this building, but the fans are great. XL has been to us this year. I'm just glad the American chose to have their tournament here," Ollie said with a smile.
The Huskies are next in action tomorrow night. They will take on Cincinnati. Tip off is scheduled for 9 p.m. and will be televised on ESPNU.
"It's going to be physical. I've played them a lot of times and every time we play them, it is extremely physical.It's going to be a close game," Boatright said. "It'll come down to whoever wants to win the most. It's going to be a dogfight."