Phil Nolan understands his position on the UConn men's basketball team better than anybody.
"I'm not the most talented guy on the team," Nolan said after Saturday's 81-78 win over Memphis.
As a sophomore, Nolan averaged 14.2 minutes per game, starting 19 times in 2013-14, including the national championship game. He only started 10 games last season, but he averaged 15.2 minutes. Through the first 14 games of the season, Nolan played in 12 games, starting one, averaging only six minutes per game.
Nolan played 15 minutes off the bench against Memphis, coming through with seven points and four rebounds. Coupled with seven points, five rebounds and five blocks from Kentan Facey, the two bigs were able to give UConn a presence down low it has not had without Amida Brimah.
The Huskies needed it with Shaq Goodwin in Gampel Pavilion.
Last year, Goodwin and Austin Nichols combined to kill the Huskies, as Memphis took both games of the season series after UConn went 3-for-3 in 2013-14. With Nichols now at Virginia, it has fallen on Goodwin to lead the Tigers. Goodwin put them on his back Saturday, posting 23 points, 11 from the free throw line as he attacked the Huskies down low relentlessly.
Nolan and Facey were able to disrupt Goodwin and the Memphis offense in the paint. Shutting him down was key. But the Huskies' bigs were able to rely on some experience to help them out.
"The first time I played against Shaq, I was just like, 'Oh, snap,'" Nolan said. "I knew what he was going to do. I knew what he was capable of."
As important as Nolan and Facey were on defense, their offensive impact may have been even more important. Without Brimah, UConn's guards have been struggling inside the 3-point line, shying away from contact in the lane and putting up puzzling shots on the run.
Sterling Gibbs especially struggled in the lane through the last three games, missing all 15 shots he attempted. He made 2 of 4 2-pointers Saturday. Rodney Purvis went 3-for-5, and while the Huskies only shot 40 percent inside the 3-point line (Daniel Hamilton and Shonn Miller struggled shooting the ball), having Nolan and Facey down low causing issues opened the game up for UConn offensively.
Gibbs looked really comfortable on offense Saturday, finishing with a season-high 26 points on 7 of 11 shooting.
"Kentan, he starts the game and he brings energy," Gibbs said. "He brings a lot of energy whether it's on the boards, setting screens, whether it's getting rebounds, putting put-backs, whatever. And then Phil comes in and he gave us a big spark. He had a big-time put-back—like a tip-in—late in the game that really helped us. I think he's been doing a lot of good things, and it started in practice."
Gibbs put UConn in a tough spot early in the game, committing a technical foul when the Huskies were up 9-8. Memphis went on a 10-2 run after that, taking an 18-11 lead, forcing UConn to play from behind.
With his hot shooting, especially from deep, Gibbs was able to help UConn climb out of the hole. He scored 13 of his 26 points in the final 10 minutes of the game, hitting the two free throws that put UConn ahead for good with 43 seconds to go.
"I was honestly just in the gym," Gibbs said of getting his shots to fall. "Just came back, tried to focus on finishing, tried to focus on getting jumpers up and game-situation stuff. Just kind of getting reps up and making sure I stayed on top of my game, even though I missed a lot of twos, a lot of threes, I knew eventually I'd be able to make them."