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Holding serve at home a must for No. 24 UConn

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published February 15. 2014 4:00AM

A month has passed since UConn scored one of its most significant victories of the season.

Now the No. 24 Huskies have a chance to add to that list in the rematch today as No. 20 Memphis visits for American Athletic Conference marquee matchup at the XL Center in Hartford (noon, ESPN).

Both teams have improved since the last meeting on Jan. 16 when UConn posted an 83-73 road victory.

The fifth-place Huskies (19-5, 7-4) are 5-1 in their last six games while the fourth-place Tigers (19-5, 8-3) are 7-1 in their last eight games.

But UConn has struggled against the top four teams in the ACC, going just 1-3 so far this season.

"This is a real important game," senior Niels Giffey said. "Just with the standings and looking ahead for the tournament, too, we just want to make a statement."

What's also important to the Huskies is protecting their home court down the stretch. No. 23 SMU and league-leader Cincinnati, two teams that UConn lost to on the road, come to town on Feb. 23 and March 1, respectively.

Rutgers is the only other remaining home opponent.

UConn has an excellent opportunity in the final seven regular-season games to climb the standings and improve its NCAA tournament resume.

"It's important to defend our home court," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I don't care if that's USF, Cincinnati or Memphis. We've got to defend our home court to be the best team that we can possibly be and then we've got to steal some on the road, which we've already done and hopefully we continue to do.

"But we've got to take of these games and hopefully we come out with that mindset."

Ollie certainly had no complaints about his team's mindset in the first meeting. The Huskies played their best all-around game. They ran an efficient attack, shooting 60.7 percent (17-for-28) in the final 20 minutes. Junior DeAndre Daniels was a matchup nightmare, finishing with 23 points and 11 rebounds.

Rebounding has helped spark UConn's recent surge. After consistently losing the battle of the boards in the first half of the season, the Huskies have out-rebounded eight of their last 10 opponents, including beating Memphis, 34-27.

"We're a better rebounding team, of course," said Ollie when asked where his team has improved since beating Memphis. "We've got some guys understanding the plays a little bit better. We're definitely playing better defense. The last four games, we've held our opposition to 33.6 percent.

"So we're playing better and we've just got to keep it up."

The Tigers have evolved into a more lethal team, too. Already experienced and talented in the backcourt, their young frontcourt players are consistently making a regular impact.

Sophomore forward Shaq Goodwin ranks second on the team in scoring (12.5) and first in rebounding (6.7) and blocks (1.7).

"They definitely got better," Ollie said. "They've got some new plays. Guys are getting familiar with each other. But they're still a great assist team, averaging 18 assists per game. We've got to play good solid defense. … And we've got to get back in transition."

"Twenty-eight percent of their points come in transition and 11 percent come on offensive rebounds, so we've going to have to do a good job on the boards and get back on defense in transition."

Revenge will be on Memphis' mind today. All three of its conference losses came against teams in the top five - UConn, Cincinnati and SMU.

"I feel like they're going to come out more aggressive because they're going to want revenge because we beat them at home," Daniels said. "We've just got to come out and play UConn basketball and match their intensity."

Senior reserve Tyler Olander, who sat out Wednesday's 83-40 rout of South Florida with flu-like symptoms, will be available today. Sophomore Omar Calhoun (concussion) is making progress but only did a light workout on his own during practice Friday and remains day-to-day.

g.keefe@theday.com

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