Thorn in My Pride
By David Borges
STORRS --- Jay-Z's "Empire State of Mind" blared on the Gampel Pavilion p.a. prior to UConn's NIT Season Tip-Off tournament bout with Hofstra on Tuesday. Soon after, the Huskies' travel plans to New York City nearly got re-routed to a more distant outpost.
No. 12 UConn narrowly avoided a major upset – and its first-ever November/December loss at Gampel during the Jim Calhoun era – by rallying over the final minutes and gutting out a 76-67 victory over the Pride.
Hofstra led by nine (54-45) with 9 minutes, 10 seconds left, and still had a 62-61 lead with just over 4 ½ minutes remaining, causing worry in the crowd of 8,713.
"Down nine with nine to go in your own building, I think is tougher than being down nine on the road," Calhoun noted.
But Jerome Dyson scored on a putback of his own miss with 4:16 left to put UConn up for good, Stanley Robinson hit a driving bank shot, and the Huskies canned nine of their last 10 foul shots – and 17 of their final 18 overall – to seal the victory.
UConn (3-0) wins the tourney's North region and now moves on to the semifinals next week at Madison Square Garden. It will face Louisiana State on Nov. 25, then play again – possibly against Duke – two days later.
Had the Huskies lost, they would have played Monday and Tuesday – almost certainly on the road – against two of the other losing teams from the three other regional rounds.
"I would rate it as a very good win, in the grand scheme of things," Calhoun said. "Because things can slip … next thing you know, you end up Monday and Tuesday in Charlotte or Western Kentucky. We planned on going to New York, as you should if you set your aspirations high."
Indeed, while Calhoun has hardly hid his frustrations after the Huskies' first two victories this season, including Monday night's 77-63 win over Colgate, he put a surprisingly positive spin on this win.
"I'm proud of how hard we played," he said. "The long rebounds killed us, we all agree with that. We're not going to break this one out as a teaching tool. But … collectively they did some good things. They showed some toughness that they're going to need on the road."
Certainly, there were some things not to like. For the second night in a row, UConn was outrebounded by a far smaller, less athletic team – 43-39, this time. Hofstra (1-2) grabbed a whopping 19 offensive boards, and even outscored the allegedly run-first Huskies 30-16 on fast break points.
Still, the Huskies were in control for much of the contest, leading by as much as 12 in the first half, and maintaining their seven-point halftime lead five minutes into the latter frame.
Then, the Pride caught fire, nailing four out of five 3-pointers ("on the move," Calhoun pointed out. "NBA teams sometimes don't do that") during one two-minute stretch that turned a 43-42 Hofstra deficit into a 54-45 lead.
At that point, the Huskies huddled on the floor and made their determination to win the game clear.
"When we were down, it was the most excited we were on the sidelines," said Calhoun. "I'm not used to that."
Added point guard Kemba Walker: "We said, 'It's time to strap up.' And that's what we did. 'Rome just took over."
Dyson scored 15 of his team-high 23 points over that final span – 11 of them from the foul line. He also picked up a key charge on Hofstra star Charles Jenkins with 50 seconds remaining, shortly after picking up his fourth foul.
"I was just playing solid defense and trying to keep him in front of me," Dyson said. "I saw him going to the basket with his head down. I kind of took a chance there with my fourth foul. We got some energy and fed off it."
Walker had picked up a charge on Jenkins with 1:58 left and the Huskies clinging to a 65-64 lead.
Robinson added 15 points for UConn, Walker had 16 to go with seven rebounds, Gavin Edwards had 10 points and Alex Oriakhi eight points and a game-high 14 boards. Dyson shot just 4-for-11 from the floor but made all but one of his 15 free throw attempts.
UConn shot 30-for-36 from the charity stripe, Hofstra just 10-for-12.
"That's a big-time crew, they're all good officials," said Hofstra coach Tom Pecora. "We had the opportunity to take the game and we didn't. A few more stops and we could have played small, but we weren't able to put together that three-minute stretch. I don't think the officials made a big difference in the game."
Jenkins led all scorers with 25 points and Cornelius Vines added 18.
A few other notes & quotes:
"Technically, it wasn't a great game for us. We held a team to 32 percent and really won in the last minute of the game."
(on the team's early-season rebounding woes)
"I know we're facing all spread teams, and we won't face teams like this in the league. The ball's still there and we're doing a bad job."
"An 18-point turnaround in the last (9 minutes), some good things must have happened. This particular group had a real big-time gut-check. We didn't want to be in Charlotte playing two teams next week. We wanted to be in Madison Square Garden."
"He played like a freshman, but didn't rebound like a freshman."
"I thought Gavin played well, and I just saw he had three rebounds. That can't happen."
"I’m going to classify this as a good win, at a time when this team is still trying to find its identity."
***Early in the second half, Calhoun called a timeout after a Hofstra 3-pointer and charged out on the court to get in Robinson's grill. On his way out, he collided with Hofstra's Cornelius Vines. Referee Jamie Luckie signaled a technical foul on Calhoun, but when he realized Calhoun had called the timeout, he waved off the "T."
***One other thing: I'll never ceased to be amazed by the fact that UConn has never lost a non-conference, November/December game at Gampel in now 46 tries. The Huskies are 148-4 at home against non-league foes in those months under Calhoun. UConn has not lost a regular season game in Storrs in November or December since Dec. 5, 1973.
Dec. 5, 1973.
Who says there's no such thing as a little home cookin'?
***Quiz question: Who sang "Thorn in My Pride"?