Tuesday, March 8, 2011

DeFeating DePaul

The long, national nightmare is over: UConn has won a Big East tournament game for the first time since 2005.

Sure, it came against DePaul, which would struggle to win games in the MAAC as presently constituted. Sure, the Blue Demons were somehow within seven (68-61) with less than nine minutes remaining. But a win is a win, and there were certainly plenty of positives for UConn, which faces Georgetown Wednesday at noon.

*** Alex Oriakhi started the game on the bench for just the second time this season. It may have inspired him, as he notched a double-double with 13 points and 19 rebounds -- the latter the most by a UConn player in a Big East tourney game since Travis Knight had 19 against Seton Hall on March 7, 1996.

"He's been struggling," said Jim Calhoun, "and basically I told him it's simple, 'Go get the basketball.' Today, he went and got the basketball a lot and made us an entirely different team."

"He needed this game," Kemba Walker said of Oriakhi.

Oriakhi got the hint he probably wouldn't be starting at practice on Monday, but didn't let it get him down.

"I took it as a challenge," he said. "I said, 'the way you're playing, you don't deserve to start. Go out there, start rebounding, and show Coach you should start.'"

Calhoun insisted that holding Oriakhi out of the starting lineup had little to do with lighting a fire underneath him.

"I wouldn't punish a guy like Alex, because he wants it badly," he said. "Coming off the bench, (I thought) he would feel better, and he responded well."

So does this mean Oriakhi comes off the bench again against Georgetown on Wednesday?

"It doesn't matter to me if I start or not," he said, "as long as I finish the game."

*** Jeremy Lamb scored 17 of his 19 points in the first half showed no ill effects from the sprained MCL he suffered three days earlier in a loss to Notre Dame. He hit his first four shots from the floor, including a 3-pointer, and had 17 points by the break on 6-for-8 shooting.

Afterwards, Lamb reported that his knee was still bothering him at times.

"Jumping is not a problem," he said. "Running is not too much of a problem. But when it comes to cutting and stopping, stuff like that, that's where it hurts."

In the latter half, Lamb passed the baton to Walker, who netted 10 of his team's first 12 points and 15 of its first 23.

*** Jamal Coombs-McDaniel and Shabazz Napier each added 11 points as the Huskies had five players hit double figures, and Napier also had eight assists and four steals.

*** UConn shot 60 percent from the floor, outrebounded the Blue Demons 46-22 and outscored them 50-20 in the paint and 26-2 on fast breaks. The Huskies did, however, commit 20 turnovers.

*** Oriakhi's 19 rebounds are the seventh-most in a Big East tournament game and most since Syracuse's Paul Harris ripped down 22 in the famous six-overtime win over UConn on March 12, 2009.

*** Walker moved into sixth place on UConn's single-season scoring chart with 720.

*** Oriakhi's only other non-start came on Jan. 4 at Notre Dame. Tyler Olander started in place of Oriakhi on Tuesday and went scoreless in six minutes.

*** Looking ahead to today's bout with Georgetown: the Hoyas (like UConn) dropped four of their last five regular-season games. Unlike UConn, their slump can largely be traced to the broken hand injury suffered by second-leading scorer and third team all-Big East guard Chris Wright on Feb. 23 against Cincinnati. Georgetown lost that game, as well as its next two. Wright, who scored a team-high 19 in the Hoyas' loss at UConn on Feb. 16, is sorely missed.

"I think they're a little more conservative, because they don't feel as confident in their bench," said Calhoun. "Beyond that, that doesn't necessarily help us because they may play more zone because of that."

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