The no.2-ranked UConn men’s basketball team took the inaugural bite of their cupcake early-season home schedule (Albany, Fairfield, Bryant College, Delaware State, Hartford are the key out-of-conference games before the Huskies face their first barometer game against Gonzaga Dec. 20) last night.
How sweet it was.
Hasheem Thabeet took advantage of the much-smaller Western Carolina frontcourt, cooking the Catamounts to the recipe of 23 points and 17 boards.
The 7-foot-3 neophyte, whose draft stock will likely soar through the rooftops this season, also gave an accurate account of himself on the defensive end. Thabeet swatted away five shots and altered the trajectory of countless others, keeping the Catamounts out of the paint as the Huskies cruised to an 81-55 bludgeoning of WCU before a crowd of 9,820 at the Gampel Pavilion.
“We identified Hasheem early,” explained a surprisingly low-key Jim Calhoun. “That’s how we got the good-sized lead. We kind of forgot about him, and then he just took over the game. He has always made up for things with just incredible heart and competitiveness and all those things, but now he’s showing much more of a skill package. I can’t even imagine him making some of the passes he made tonight, even last year.”
Calhoun’s team coasted to a blowout on opening night for the first time in three years. In 2007, a gritty Morgan State team took them down-to-the-wire, before their upset-bid was thwarted in a 64-62 thriller. In 2006, in-state foe Quinnipiac ran neck-and-neck with the then no.18 Huskies until the waning minutes, when UConn escaped with a 53-46 victory. That UConn team was greener than a dope field and managed to survive the scare despite shooting an abysmal 17 percent in the second half.
Two years later, a similar Husky ballclub was impenetrable defensively. It took Western Carolina, the first team in NCAA history to net a three-pointer (God I love Wikipedia), over five minutes to get on the scoreboard. The fierce 1-2 punch of Thabeet and 6-foot-7 Jeff Adrien (14 points, 6-for-7 FG) kept the driving lanes blocked. WCU began jacking up ill-advised shots from the outside and botching easy layups. The Catamounts finally thwarted the 13-0 opening spurt with a Jake Robinson trey.
The high-flying antics of Jerome Dyson, who scored 23 points, helped ignite the Huskies. Dyson scorched the nets with his patented set threeball, permeated the defense with acrobatic moves inside, and punished the rim with a highlight reel, fast break banger (plus the foul) to culminate a 10-0 run the Huskies kick-started the dump-off with.
Dyson’s rim-ringing, hoop-and-the-harm dunk will likely generated a number of hits when inserted on the youtube circuit. It was symbolic of the junior’s airtime prowess and ability to finish with authority.
We've seen this before with the freakishly-athletic kid from Rockville, Md.
“I keep saying he (Jerome) has to get more of a “package,” a basketball package,” said Calhoun, who suspended Dyson for nearly a month after the junior was cited for possession of alcohol by a minor on UConn’s campus last year.
“Not just an athletic, tough, aggressive package, but a basketball package. He’s starting to move closer to it. He missed two wide open jumpers and I was the first guy to say to him “keep taking them.” Because he’s been making them in practice and he’ll make more of them. I like the way he’s playing.”
WCU came roaring back from the deficit, fighting valiantly behind three-point snipers Robinson and Brandon Giles.
A little over 2:30 into the second half, WCU came within ten points on a three-pointer by Giles (16 points). An irate Calhoun signaled for a timeout.
The Huskies answered to the verbal lashing of their longtime game general, running off an 11-4 run that culminated with a Thabeet dunk off an eye-popping feed from freshman Kemba Walker.
Walker, a highly-touted recruit from New York perennial power Rice High School, showed some flashes of the player he might materialize into. He scored eight points and doled out five assists but broke down the defense several times, cutting defenders up on his way to the cup. Walker, an instant staple in the New York City street game (he etched a name for himself at the vaunted Rucker Park) admitted that some freshman jitters were thrust to the forefront prior to his first game in a Husky uniform.
“I was definitely a little jittery in the beginning, but after a while we picked it up and all the nerves went away,” said Walker, whose chemistry with Thabeet continues to prosper.
“I always call (Thabeet) my bailout. Every time I go to the basket and help defense comes, he’s always available. I can throw it up, just give him the ball, and he scores it.”
UConn received a scare and nearly experienced déjà vu in the first half, when A.J. Price landed awkwardly after a heavily-contested three-point attempt (no whistle was called, much to the dismay of Price). Price was instantly replaced by backup Donnell Beverly, though he would later return. It was later revealed that Price sprained his ankle. Price was once again caught in controversy in the second half, when he was ejected for supposedly throwing a frustration punch at a Western Carolina player.
“They said (A.J.) threw a punch,” Calhoun verified.
“ If that’s the case, then I’m surprised, number one, but they threw him out for a flagrant foul. And they did go to the monitor, so they must have seen something. Something happened on the play right in front of us, where an elbow had been caught and he was the receiver of it, and he made a foolish mistake by doing something down at the other end. But it doesn’t work that way. The scoreboard tells the story in ballgames. I’ve said that for years.”
Price, who went scoreless in 25 minutes and peddled out four assists to five turnovers, said there was extra-curricular activity but no punch.
“It wasn’t a punch, just an elbow, a little love tap, or something like that,” he said. “There was frustration building up the whole game. I just let it get the best of me.”
Even on a night when one of the top Big East point guards was an afterthought, UConn was impressive during various surges. A three from the corner by Dyson, followed by a Thabeet block that led to an easy inside bucket by Jeff Adrien pumped the lead to 64-38.
A two-handed fast break flush by Gavin Edwards lifted the lead to 73-45 as the fans began to make their way to the exit signs.
The up-tempo identity that UConn fans are so familiar with was re-discovered Friday night. The Huskies look to make it 2-0 Monday night against neighboring Hartford, which lost a tight one to former UConn assistant Tom Moore and Quinnipiac.