Monday, November 12, 2012

UConn Relying on Leadership to Avoid Post-Germany Letdown

There was one point in UConn’s stirring, 66-62 win over Michigan State Friday night in Germany when Kevin Ollie felt most confident his team would win.

Spartan guard Keith Appling had just been fouled by Shabazz Napier while converting a layup and was going to the foul line to try to complete a three-point lead and give MSU a 58-56 lead.

Napier gathered his teammates together at the foul line and implored them to keep their composure.

“We looked scattered,” Napier recalled. “I wanted to bring the guys together, tell them we were going to win this game. They made their run, now we're going to make our run."

Said Ollie: “That’s what I want our leaders to do, not hang your head (and say), ‘We’re down.’ I knew we were going to be fine after I saw that. “

And they were. Napier hit a 3-pointer 29 seconds later and the Huskies never again trailed en route to an upset victory that has catapulted them into the Top 25.

Napier admitted his leadership moment might not have happened a year ago.

"It's something I would have never thought of doing," he admitted. "I would have been like, '(Shoot), I fouled him."

*** It’s just that type of leadership that Napier displayed Friday night that has the Huskies confident they won’t suffer a letdown going from a nationally-televised win over a Top 15 team to a less sexy opponent from the America East on Tuesday night when the Huskies host Vermont in their regular-season home opener at Gampel.

“A loss (tonight would) wash away that whole winning experience in Germany,” said Ryan Boatright. “I’ve preached that to the team since we got back from Germany. Shabazz has been doing the same thing. I think by us leading by example, we’ve got a whole different attitude this year.”

Ollie was pleased with the way his team got back to practice on Monday, after a long flight and bus ride home on Saturday followed by a much-needed day off Sunday.

“I know it was a tough day for them mentally to come in here – jet lag, all those excuses you can use,” he said. “They didn’t use any of them (Monday). They gave me a lift, came out and played very, very strong and very, very hard … Now, you’ve just got to carry it over to (tonight).”

*** The entire trip to Germany –visiting military hospitals, hanging out with the servicemen – was an eye-opener for the Huskies.

“I was in awe ever since I stepped off the bus,” Napier said. “It was so weird. (The troops) were asking for our autographs, taking pictures. I had to take a step back when I got to my room. I’m like, ‘Why are they looking at us as heroes?’ I feel as though they’re our heroes. I wanted to cherish every minute I was out there.”

And UConn certainly made the most of it.

“They were all respectful, they were attentive,” Ollie said of his players at the military base. “All the guys asked questions and were really into it. Then we came out and took care of business on Friday, which made me even more proud of them.”

*** UConn’s No. 23 ranking puts it back in the polls for the first time since Jan. 23. The Huskies finished just out of the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll, two votes out of the Top 25.

The ranking doesn't really faze the Huskies.

"I didn’t know we were ranked at all," Napier said. "It’s kind of nice, but we can’t sit on our success, go out and play hard against Vermont. As a junior, that number means nothing to me. But if I were a freshman, that number would mean a lot."

Added Ollie: "It really doesn't matter to me. We want to go out and play UConn basketball. That's togetherness, with pride, sacrificing for each other, unselfish, fast breaks, defense, rebounding. That's what we hang our hats on."

Napier believes Friday's big win will add extra fans to Tuesday's games.

"There's gonna be a bunch of fans there now," he said. "We didn't have a lot of fans our first two games, which is understandable, they were exhibition games. I have a good feeling that ther's going to be a lot of fans there."

Unfortunately, according to a UConn spokesman, there are plenty of tickets still available.

*** Napier's best memory from Germany came at the military hospital, when a woman came up to him and R.J. Evans, told them they reminded her of her sons and asked for a hug. She then told them, "You just took all the pain away from me."

"I was so shocked," Napier said. "It made her lose her pain. It may not mean a lot to a lot of people, for me it was something more than that. I play basketball. For someone to say that to me, just because I play basketball, it means the world.”

*** Ethan O’Day, a 6-foot-9 freshman forward for Vermont, hails from Mansfield and was a teammate of Tyler Olander’s for one seasonat E.O. Smith High.

O’Day grew up right around the corner from Olander.

“We used to hang out all the time,” said Olander, who also noted that numerous people from E.O. Smith have apparently bought tickets to the game.

*** UConn AD Warde Manuel and president Susan Herbst are at the Big East presidents' meetings in Chicago for the next two days, but don't expect anything to change in the Huskies' current banishment from the Big East tourney.

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