Saturday, February 5, 2011

Jersey Barrier

UConn beats Seton Hall. That's just sorta what it does. Eleven straight now, dating back to 2001, and 18 of the last 19. The players come and go (coaches, too, in Seton Hall's case -- including one George Blaney), and the Pirates just can't beat UConn.

They should have Saturday night, mind you. This one was for the taking for the Hall, which led by 14 with about 13 minutes left and by 10 inside of eight minutes. But Seton Hall simply doesn't beat UConn.

Even though the Huskies hit just 12 of 21 free throws (8-for-15 in the second half). Even though no one on UConn -- including Kemba Walker and recently red-hot Jeremy Lamb – played particularly well. Even though the Hall outrebounded the Huskies 42-33 and outplayed them for most of the game's first 32 minutes.

Even though Walker missed three straight free throws -- after being fouled on a 3-point attempt -- in the midst of UConn's comeback bid.

Afterwards, a reporter asked Walker, "How did you just win that game?"

"That's what I said after the game," Walker said with a smile, before adding. "We just gave effort, that's what it was. In the second half – not the whole second half – but with about seven minutes left, we just got it done."

It also helped that the Pirates are the Pirates. They scored one meaningless field goal in the game's final 8:17. In fact, they scored just three points over that span, missing three of four free throws. Seton Hall, which hit six 3-pointers in the first half, missed all nine from behind the arc in the latter. It shot just 29 percent from the floor over the final 20 minutes.

Obviously, UConn's defense deserves plenty of credit for finally clamping down when it needed to. Still, if the Hall hits just one basket -- or a couple of those free throws -- down the stretch, it probably wins.

"That ranks with anything we've done this season," said Jim Calhoun. "They found it within themselves to go out and win a basketball game."

And Seton Hall found a way to lose it.

***Really, the comeback was a team effort. Several players contributed -- both in a good way and in a bad way. Walker hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2:32 left and was once again the spearhead, finishing with a team-high 19 points, though he also missed a bunch of shots down the stretch.

And, of course, there were those three missed freebies.

"I don't know what to say about that. I just missed," Walker noted. "We're usually a good free throw shooting team. Those rims were tough. But, we won."

Added Shabazz Napier (who finished with seven points and five steals): "I was shocked. I was like, 'Oh, man.' I knew we were going to still win, but what went through my mind was Louisville, when I missed my free throws. I was like, 'This is not going to go well.' But he got it back. I'm happy for him."

Alex Oriakhi had a huge tip-out that kept the ball in UConn's hands in the final minute, and blocked Jeremy Hazell's 3-point attempt in the final seconds, then hit the game-clinching free throw with 3.7 ticks left after Herb Pope flagrantly fouled him.

(Tyler Olander, Oriakhi's good friend, ran out on the court after Pope's hard foul and was practically shoved back to the bench by an enraged Calhoun).

Napier had a big steal and layup to get the Huskies to within a point. He also inexplicably threw the ball inbounds towards the Seton Hall basket after Oriakhi's second free throw, allowing Fuquan Edwin to hit a layup that could have been disastrous had he been fouled while trying a trey.

"That was stupid," Napier admitted afterwards. "The funny thing about it, once I heard, 'Throw it to the backcourt,' the first thing that went through my mind was, 'This is going to be a turnover.' I just threw my hands up and said, 'Oh man, please.'"

And Roscoe Smith had a couple of huge rebounds down the stretch, the latter on which he was fouled with 19.3 seconds left. The freshman calmly stepped to the line and hit both free throws to give UConn a 60-57 edge.

"He doesn't have that personality that things really bother him," said Calhoun.

Added Smith: "It was really normal. They were big, but I knew I could knock them down, so that's what I did."

The biggest free throws of his young UConn career, no doubt ... so far.

"I think I've got many more to come."

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