Eligible again, UConn edges Maryland

NEW YORK – On the first day of the 2013-14 college basketball season, St. John's was playing a game in Sioux Falls, S.D., and Madison Square Garden was hosting a concert by the Eagles.

If you wanted to watch big-time college hoops, your destination was Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, where No. 18 Connecticut took on Maryland.

It was worth the trip.

You saw an early-November thriller between two teams plenty capable of making the NCAA tournament field of 68. And you saw one team clearly has the ingredients to make a deep run in March.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie was a little relieved, and a lot more proud, after his Huskies pulled out a 78-77 victory.

"I told them if we win by half a point or 40 points, a win is a win," Ollie said. "And that's a good Maryland team that we just beat over there."

Connecticut jumped out to a 48-36 halftime lead, shooting a blistering 52.9 percent from the field (18-for-34) and 46.2 percent from beyond the arc (6-for-13).

When guard Ryan Boatright threw down a dunk on a fast break with 11:52 remaining, the Huskies led 67-50 and appeared on the verge of blowing the Terrapins out of the building.

But Maryland was far from finished. The Terps rattled off 11 straight points from there to get back in it, and eventually climbed all the way back to within a point in the final minute.

Star guard Dez Wells had two decent looks that would have put his team ahead in the final 15 seconds, but both jumpers were off the mark, and UConn hung on.

Wells had a tough night in general, held to 13 points, shooting 3-for-10 from the field, although he did have seven rebounds and six assists.

But Maryland will win plenty of games this season. Five Terps scored in double figures Friday, and starting guard Seth Allen should return from a fractured leg in a few weeks.

"I was disappointed with our guys in the first half, no toughness," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. "But in the second half we really competed and just came up one possession short."

As for UConn, senior Shabazz Napier led the way with 18 points, seven assists and seven rebounds, even though he fouled out with 90 seconds left and had to watch the end of the game from the bench.

"It was tough," Napier said. "But I felt a lot of confidence in my team. … The guys in the last two minutes did a heck of a job, and that's what you need, is those supporting guys."

Napier had plenty of support Friday night. Ten Huskies played, and all 10 scored. Niels Giffey dropped 13 points off the bench, draining all three of his 3-point attempts. Omar Calhoun, a Brooklyn native, chipped in 10. Boatright added nine and two others scored eight.

And forward Tyler Olander, who played only nine minutes, hit the biggest shot of the game – a 3-pointer with just under two minutes remaining that pushed the lead back to five.

Ollie has a deep team, with a lot of different weapons – and he knows it.

"I don't even look at 'em as starters and reserves," Ollie said. "I've got 10 guys that can start. I truly believe that. "

When the Huskies tipped off their season one year ago at this time, it was under very different circumstances. Connecticut was ineligible for the NCAA tournament because of a low Academic Progress Rate score.

UConn won 20 games for the 17th time in the past 20 seasons. But the Huskies were noticeably absent from March Madness after winning the national championship three times in the past 14 years.

They're eligible for the Big Dance again this season. But both players and coach said that doesn't change their approach one bit.

"No, we're playing the same way," Napier said. "I don't think about that at all. All my life, I've been a guy that's just thinking about the next game, not the few months ahead. You don't ever want to think about the future, because you're gonna forget about the present."

"I don't care if we don't play for the NCAA tournament, I don't care if we do play for the tournament," Ollie said. "Every day is a different day. We're gonna create our own story. We're not gonna let anybody create it for us."

Well, the Connecticut Huskies began creating a potentially great story Friday night in Brooklyn. A story that could see them return to New York in March, when Madison Square Garden hosts the NCAA tournament's East regional semis and final.

Who knows? The story might even extend to April, in Arlington, Texas.