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Ollie takes his first steps in exhibition opener

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published November 02. 2012 4:00AM
Jessica Hill/ AP Photo
UConn's R.J. Evans (12) goes up for a basket, as AIC's D.J. Gutridge falls to the court during the first half of Thursday night's men's basketball exhibition game at Gampel Pavilion.

Storrs - Early in his UConn head coaching debut on Thursday, Kevin Ollie tried to enjoy the moment.

It was hard to do at first, as the Huskies stumbled out of the blocks in their exhibition opener at Gampel Pavilion.

"When you go 1-for-9 (from the field), I'm like, 'Man, this might be my only time out here,'" Ollie said with a hearty laugh.

UConn eventually responded, riding a 16-0 second half spurt to pull away from American International College, a Division II program, and post a 78-63 victory.

It was your typical exhibition performance - equal parts good, bad and ugly.

The Huskies eventually shook off jitters, settled down and played well in spots. The backcourt trio of junior Shabazz Napier (11 points), sophomore Ryan Boatright (14 points) and freshman Omar Calhoun, who scored 21 of his 24 points in the second half, fueled the surge.

Now, UConn will return to work to try to iron out some of the wrinkles as it prepares for Sunday's exhibition finale against UMass-Lowell in Hartford. The season opener is a week from today against Michigan State in Germany.

"Some of the basic things that we've been trying to stress and trying to teach they didn't execute right," Ollie said. "I've got to go back and look at myself and they've got to go back and look at themselves in the mirror and we've got to come back to work. And that's what it is all about.

"Nobody said it was going to be easy, and it wasn't easy out there tonight. I praise AIC for coming out there and giving us a great game. But now we've got a foundation to build upon."

Ollie showed patience throughout the game, allowing the Huskies to play through their mistakes. They never had that luxury under Jim Calhoun, who had a notoriously quick hook.

Since retiring, Calhoun remains a behind-the-scenes advisor to Ollie. He watched Thursday's game from press row baseline seats and spoke with Ollie after the game.

Neither former nor current coach liked what they saw in the first half, as a spunky AIC team picked apart UConn with crisp ball movement and back-door cuts. The Huskies also were outrebounded (18-17) and never led in the first half, trailing 29-28 at the break.

The Huskies came out of the locker room with more zip and composure.

"I felt like in the first half everybody was nervous," Boatright said. "We had to get the jitters out. We came back in the second half. I feel like we were more relaxed."

UConn emerged from its offensive funk and started finding open shooters. Boatright, who had a reckless start, buried a 3-pointer to tie the game at 33-all and had 11 points in the game-changing 16-0 run.

Omar Calhoun played with the confidence of a New York City guard. He displayed a nice shooting touch from the outside, sinking three 3-pointers, and scoring on tough baseline drives.

"He just knows how to play basketball and he kept his composure," Ollie said.

One of the biggest improvements in the second half came on the boards. The Huskies were more active, holding a 22-13 edge.

Sophomore DeAndre Daniels, who spent time at both small and power forward, finished with a team-high nine rebounds and junior Tyler Olander added eight rebounds. They joined Napier, Boatright and Niels Giffey in the starting lineup.

"That's one of my main goals is to rebound this year," Daniels said. "Obviously, we don't have a lot of big guys on the team so me and (Tyler) and all the other big guys, we need to rebound."

Time will tell if the Huskies can minimize their shortcomings in that department. A lack of depth will be another area to watch.

Ollie stuck with mainly eight players, including graduate student R.J. Evans of Salem. Evans had five points in 15 minutes and provided a spark off the bench in the first half when UConn fought back from a 10-point deficit.

"He came in and settled us in and we started playing good basketball when he came in the game," Ollie said. "R.J was great for us."

g.keefe@theday.com

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