Saturday, January 23, 2010

Nostradamus, I'm Not

Well … didn't see that one coming. Especially after a first half that, at times, appeared to be men vs. boys – with Texas playing the roll of men.

Then came a second half that few – and certainly not this prognosticator – could have seen coming.

Admit it, after UConn committed 16 first-half turnovers, then Stanley Robinson threw away the inbounds pass to start the second half (leading to an Avery Bradley dunk that gave Texas a 10-point lead), you didn't really believe the Huskies would pull off the comeback, did you?

"We went at them at halftime, (turnovers are) pretty much all we talked about," said George Blaney. "Then the first play of the second half we turned it over. I called a timeout and said, 'What did we just spend 10 minutes on?'"

And even if you did call it, you couldn't have possibly predicted it would be as thorough and impressive as it was, with the outcome determined with 6 ½ minutes left following a head-spinning, 26-6 Husky run.

"We should have kept smacking them in the face and playing hard," said Bradley. "But we let them back in it in the second half."

They sure did. And I'm out of the prediction business. In the words of Arthur Fonzarelli, I was wr-wr-wr-wr-wr ...

***Nobody had a better second-half redemption than Kemba Walker. He had six of UConn's first-half turnovers, including four within the game's first five minutes. In the latter half, Walker had 17 points and just two turnovers. He finished with 19 points, 10 assists and six steals.

"That was probably the worst first half I've ever played in my life," Walker confessed. "I was a little bit too hyped. In the second half, I came out poised and in control."

Walker hit a long trey with 6:17 left to give UConn a 71-58 lead, then waxed some Husky history afterwards.

"When it went in, all I could think about was when Taliek Brown hit that shot," Walker said, referring to Brown's 35-foot heave with 35 seconds left in double-overtime of UConn's Big East tourney championship game win over Pitt in 2002.

What did Blaney say to Walker at halftime?

"I told him, 'Don't turn the ball over,'" Blaney said. "I'm serious. I told him another time, 'Go tell Alex (Oriakhi) to make two foul shots.' He looked at me like I'm crazy, and I said, 'Go tell him.' And he did, and he made them. Then, when Kemba missed one, I said, 'Kemba, ask Alex to tell you to make a foul shot.'"

***And Jerome Dyson … oh, Dyson. He had a career-high 32 points on one big basket after another, including four 3-pointers.

"He's not Ray Allen, Ray's a pure shooter," said Blaney. "Jerome's a scorer. You put Jerome in any game, he's going to score points: foul line, drives, steals, dunks, everything. He's not what you would call a shooter, but he can make shots if he would just concentrate a little bit more."

But perhaps Walker said it best.

"'Rome was just 'Rome," the sophomore point guard noted. "That's what 'Rome does."

***Of all the game's numerical stats, however, the most important one didn't show up in the final box score: Three. As in, the number of times freshman Ater Majok dove to the floor for loose balls in the first half.

Majok was back in the starting lineup after usurping the spot to Charles Okwandu the past two games, and his hustle plays truly inspired the Huskies. Early on, he hit the floor for a loose ball and got the ball to Dyson at midcourt. Dyson fired up a long alley-oop pass to Robinson for a dunk.

"The play he made in the first half, going on the floor for that loose ball was something that got everybody's motor going," said Blaney.

Added Gavin Edwards: "That was a huge play. That kind of set the tone for the energy that everybody had to play with. Once everybody saw that, everybody got excited and knew that was how we were going to have to play."

Majok would cause two more jump-ball situations later in the half with hustle plays. He wound up with five points, six boards and four blocks in a career-high 31 minutes, but Majok's contributions went far beyond the stat line.

"I'm not the scorer on the team yet, I'm not the best rebounder," Majok said. "But hey, if they need an energy man, I'm going to be that energy man. I'm going to bring that energy, bring that heart. You've just got to keep working."

***Jim Calhoun spoke to his team via Blaney's cell phone in the locker room after the game.

"He was excited," Blaney said. "He told them how tough they were, and how he believed all along in their heart, never questioned their heart. When you're 10 down to the No. 1 team in the country and come back and go 10 up in a short period of time, that is hard. The kids were all excited, yelling at the phone, 'Hurry up back, Coach. Get well.' He sounded very good."

"We've got to play for him," said Dyson. "We know these wins help him get better, because it takes some of the stress off him, having to worry about us.You could tell through the phone that he was happy and proud of us."

Blaney was asked how much he's had to do with the two wins he's coached since Calhoun's medical leave of absence.

"I think I've had a lot to do with it. I've done exactly what Jim would want me to do, with his team. He prepared the players to play this way. His teams have always gotten better in January. That's when you run offense better, because offense is so hard to teach. That's something he's always done."

***In a gesture to thank the hundreds of students who slept outside of Gampel to get good seats for the game, Blaney invited about 300-400 students inside the gym for Saturday morning's shootaround.

***UConn is now 2-6 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams, its other win over Duke in the 1999 national title game. The Longhorns, however, won't be ranked No. 1 come Monday.

***Big East founder Dave Gavitt, who has been battling health issues, was in the crowd and acknowledged on the big screen during a break in the action. Texas coach Rick Barnes, who was mentored by Gavitt when Barnes coached at Providence, got very emotional after the game.

"Obviously, we want to win basketball games," said Barnes, his voice breaking and his eyes welling with tears, "but coming up here today and having a chance to see Dave Gavitt is everything. I'd take a loss to see him."

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