Published December 22. 2012 4:00AM
Hartford - UConn has maximized its strengths and masked its weaknesses on the way to a fast start this season.
No more was that evident than on Friday night against Fordham.
The energized Huskies played inspired defense and attacked on offense behind their potent three-guard lineup while rolling up to a 32-point lead in the first half.
Then their rebounding shortcomings began to take a toll, as the Huskies watched their lead shrink to 13 points in the second half. They regained the momentum to post an 88-73 non-conference victory at the XL Center.
"We were on our way to a nice victory, and they made it interesting," coach Kevin Ollie said.
Terrific guard play from sophomore Ryan Boatright, junior Shabazz Napier and freshman Omar Calhoun has sparked the Huskies to a 9-2 start. Against Fordham, they combined for 62 points and created havoc on defense.
Boatright had 20 of his career-high 26 points in the first half and added nine assists overall while Napier finished with 19 points, seven rebounds, six assists and four steals and Calhoun added 17 points.
The Huskies scored 35 points off of 21 turnovers and had a season-high 15 steals. But they got outrebounded for the 10th time this season, by a 40-28 margin.
"We've got to mask some of our rebounding deficiencies by ball pressure, by getting steals and by doing different things that we've been doing with our full court pressure…," Ollie said. "It gets back to rebounding. We've got to finish those possessions with rebounds, If we do that, we're going to be a good team going into the Big East."
UConn has one game left - Dec. 29 against Washington in Hartford - to work on its issues prior to the Big East season opener at Marquette on Jan. 1. It's highly unlikely that the Huskies will be as successful come conference play if the rebounding doesn't improve.
Napier, a 6-foot-1 point guard, led the Huskies in rebounding with seven. Only reserve forward Tyler Olander (six) had more than three rebounds.
To their credit, the Huskies didn't let the upcoming holiday break affect their energy and enthusiasm to start the game. They came out focused and ran away from the Rams (2-9), surging to a 57-28 halftime lead.
They fed off their aggressive defense. Calhoun's 3-pointer - one of eight in the first half for UConn - broke a 15-15 tie and started a 14-0 run. Napier converted a steal into a fast-break layup. Boatright's steal led to two free throws and reserve guard R.J. Evans buried his first 3-pointer of the season for a 29-15 lead.
The run stretched the score to 37-8.
"We were all knocking down shots," Boatright said. "We shared the ball. We just played UConn basketball in the first half."
Boatright was a pest on both ends, energizing his teammates with his super-charged play. He scored from all over the court, sinking 3-pointers and finishing off penetrating drives. In the last three games, he's averaging 21 points while shooting a sizzling 69 percent (24-for-35) from the field.
His recent hot hand coincided with Napier asking to play primarily point guard starting with the Harvard game on Dec. 7. Napier prefers setting up teammates over scoring.
"He's a different guard than I am," Napier said. "He's shorter, but he's a scorer. That's why I asked to move to (point guard). … I'm looking to give him the ball. When you have a hot man like that, you've got to ride him."
The Huskies played the scoreboard in the second half, as the Rams went on a 19-0 run by dominating the boards. They went almost six minutes without scoring.
"We started flat and never really got it going," Calhoun said.
Finally, Evans (nine points) ended the drought with a layup. And the Huskies stabilized the game. They shot 51 percent overall.
Until their rebounding improves, the Huskies plan to continue to do whatever it takes to win games.
"Everybody in the country knows that we're not as big as we've been in past years," Boatright said. "So we've got to find ways to still win games."