Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Sticks Lifts UConn

On UConn's very first game of the 2009-10 campaign, a shaky win over William & Mary, coach Jim Calhoun called into question Stanley Robinson's confidence and coachability.

"Stanley has a little problem with my advice," said Calhoun that mid-November night.

"I said to him, 'Stanley, stop taking contested shots.' So when he passed on four shots he said 'coach, you don't want me to shoot right now...'"

Last year, Robinson carried the tag of feast-or-famine, as his paltry-or-plenty antics rendered him Mystery Man. Robinson went Houdini in several critical games.

Fast forward to a year later.

The kid known better as "Sticks" is a hyper-athletic, surefire NBA talent with soaring hops and a sky-scraping ceiling.

So, the addition of a dependable deep jumper and a perimeter game to Sticks' repertoire has allowed the 6-foot-9 wing's stock to shoot up like a Jersey Shore Juicehead.

The added range has paid dividends for a UConn team that's on the bounce back, following a miserable mid-season freefall.

The Huskies are hell-bent on racing to the NCAA tournament. Last night's crucial 73-62 win over West Virginia at the XL Center was indicative of this.

Robinson, who had been struggling from the perimeter the past few games (mired in a 2-for-12 shooting slump from 3-point land), buried a behemoth three-pointer with 6:14 remaining, giving UConn (17-11, 7-8 Big East) a 61-56 edge over a West Virginia (21-6, 10-5) on Big Monday.

The Mountaineers scratched and clawed their way back to within four, 66-62, on a Kevin Jones tip-in with 1:35 to play, triggering a 30-second UConn timeout.

With 1:03 to go, Jerome Dyson tore into a traffic lane on a power drive, misfiring on an acrobatic layup. But there was Sticks, levitating above West Virginia's John Flowers and hovering over the rim.

Robinson flushed home a ferocious stickback jam--a la Knicks legend Patrick Ewing on the Indiana Pacers in the 1994 NBA Eastern Conference Finals--and electrified the crowd of 15,082 as 60 seconds remained.

The crowd erupted in glass-shattering fashion, with no outbursts more uproarious than Robinson's.

"I was just trying to crash the boards the whole game," explained Robinson, who scored 15 points and snared 13 boards, five on the offensive end.

"It was a blessing for me to get that offensive rebound."

Fifteen seconds after Robinson's banger, Kemba Walker (game-high 21 points, 3-10 FG, 14-17 FT) pick-pocketed Devin Ebanks and raced back the the rim for a rare one-handed dunk. The four-point swing created the game's biggest shift of momentum.

Robinson's late-game heroics were especially critical, considering veteran forward Gavin Edwards (11 points in 25 minutes) was whistled for his fifth foul (on Da'sean Butler) with 4:09 remaining.

Butler, held to just nine points on 2-for-10 shooting, made both free throws as WVU sliced UConn's lead to five.

The Huskies led by as many as 15 in the first half. Spurred by Dyson's forays to the basket, UConn engineered a 13-0 run that spanned nearly six minutes.

West Virginia lived beyond the arc for much of the first, hitting just 3-of-11. The 'Neers were steered clear of the driving lanes. The only player to permeate the teeth of the Huskies' "D" was guard Daryll "Truck" Bryant, the NYC Gauchos product sporting candy-colored kicks, an eyesore to say the least.

"We're not shooting the ball," said a disgruntled Bob Huggins, who was ejected with 42 seconds to go.

"Every good team goes through that. We're just not making any shots."

The profanity-laced tirade Huggins unleashed on official Mike Stuart earned Huggins the boot.

His beef?

"I don't really want to get into it," said Huggins.

Ebanks, a longer than the Nile River forward whose name was littered all over websites canvassing "who's who" of 2010 draft hopefuls, continued his streak of first half futility.

The wiry 6-foot-9 forward attempted just two shots and grabbed one rebound. Ebanks stamped his imprint in the second half, finishing the night with 17 points and nine boards.

Ebanks and Butler scored 13 of WVU's first 19 points of the second half, as the Mountain Men chipped away at a nine-point UConn lead.

West Virginia shot a woeful 12-for-23 at the free throw line and dialing in from distance didn't help, as they went 4-for-18 from beyond the arc.

Now UConn, a Big East Bubble Team that was wasting away talent and failing to close out games a month ago, is on a furious race to earn a tourney bid.

Fitting, as Calhoun--a three-time cancer survivor who's been plagued with stress-management and medical issues which sidelined him for a good chunk of this season--appears to be on a race against time.

Though he has multiple years remaining on his contract, the Hall of Fame coach has a three-headed monster in Dyson, Walker, and Sticks.

While the squad gave an embarassing, inefficent account of themselves during losses to Providence and Cincinnatti, they've taken care of the cream of the crop with signature wins over Villanova, Texas, and now West Virginia. This could be Calhoun's last visible chance to return to the Final Four, as a callow crew (Walker aside) returns next season.

If anybody has grown under the militaristic-like zeal of Calhoun, it's Sticks. The projected first-round pick is averaging 15.5 points and 7.7 boards.

"I've been on him for the past month, feeling that he can do some special things," said Calhoun.

"And he hasn't, until tonight."

NOTES:

-Dyson, Kemba and Edwards accounted for 27 of the Huskies' 37 first half points.

-The Huskies pounded the Mountaineers on the glass, 21-11 in the first.

-Ebanks has been receiving some love from the Golden State Warriors scouting crew, but it's clear he's not pro-ready. The biggest knock on Ebanks is his lack of a dependable shot. The New York City native has shot an anemic 3-for-27 from downtown this year and has at-times put on a disappearing act.

-UConn outscored West Virginia, 26-8, off turnovers.

-One of the game's most intriguing subplots was the matchup between Kemba Walker and Daryll "Truck Bryant. Both New York City guards, Bronx-bred Walker played at Rice while Brooklyn-bred Bryant played at St. Ray's. Both teams are longtime, bitter blood rivals. The two ran together with the Gauchos on the AAU circuit, winning back-to-back Peach Jam championships when they were younger.

"He's like a brother to me," said Walker of Bryant.

Walker clearly got the better of his close counterpart, scoring 17 points and doling out four dimes to go with three steals. Bryant scored seven points and also peddled out four assists.

-Andre Drummond, a highly-touted 6-foot-9 sophomore at St. Thomas More in Oakdale, Conn., sat behind the UConn bench last night. Drummond is receiving considerable interest from both UConn and West Virginia.

-Last week, Dyson put a straightcoat on Villanova stud Scottie Reynolds. This week, UConn's best on the ball defender negated Butler.