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UConn holds off Michigan State in Kevin Ollie’s coaching debut

By Dom Amore, The Hartford Courant –

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany — It would be overstating it to say that the Huskies shocked the world. But they did travel halfway around it to pull off a shocking upset in Kevin Ollie’s first game as head coach.

Shabazz Napier scored 25 points as the unranked Huskies hung on to beat 14th-ranked Michigan State, 66-62, in the first Armed Forces Classic, staged in an airplane hangar on America’s largest overseas air base. The first NCAA game ever played in Europe, it delighted a crowd of about 3,100, mostly active military personnel, and stunned the national TV audience of college basketball fans back home.

“It’s a great win for our school, a great win for our program,” said Ollie, 39, who took over for Jim Calhoun in September. “It’s a long way to come, but it’s worth it if you get the effort. We’re not going to win every battle, but if you give the effort, you’re going to come out on top. And that’s what we did tonight.”

Ollie clearly had his team well-prepared, confident and loose. The Huskies came out with the hot shooting touch, executing set plays to perfection, such as a front-door cut with a bounce pass from Tyler Olander to Napier. After forcing Michigan State center Derrick Nix to turn the ball over four times in the opening minutes, Spartans coach Tom Izzo had to abandon his biggest lineup for the rest of the night.

“We’re too fast for that,” Napier said.

UConn hit nine of its first 10 shots to take a 20-6 lead, and 15 of its first 17 to make it 28-13 with 8 minutes, 31 seconds to go in the half. The Huskies led by as much as 16 before Michigan State made its run.

“Michigan State is a great, great team,” Napier said. “They’re supposed to come back. Coach Ollie wanted us to keep our composure, and that’s what we did.”

The Spartans began to assert their advantage on the boards, and got back in the game, cutting UConn’s lead to 40-33 at the half and taking the lead 46-45 on Gary Harris’ jumper with 15:09 left in the game.

But R.J. Evans, giving the Huskies quality minutes off the bench, scored on a baseline move to put UConn back ahead, and it was a nip-and-tuck game down the stretch. UConn never gave up the lead again.

Ollie called his last timeout with 33.5 seconds left, holding a two-point lead after Michigan State gained possession, and he put in four guards to prevent the Spartans from getting a three-pointer. This included Ryan Boatright, who twisted his ankle and had to be helped off in the second half, but kept returning. He scored 13 points; DeAndre Daniels had 12 points and eight rebounds. Keith Appling scored 17 to lead the Spartans.

Daniels pulled in a huge rebound to get the ball back. Napier drew a foul and hit two crucial free throws with 13.6 seconds to go, and two more with three-tenths of a second left to ice it.

“Coach Ollie likes to play it low-key,” Napier said, “that’s how he is, he doesn’t show emotion. We try to get it out of him. But when we get back into a confined area, he’s going to go berserk.”

The Spartans did outrebound the Huskies 43 to 29, but it did not seem as if they dominated the boards. UConn blocked 10 shots, and got the important rebounds.

“That’s the fight,” Ollie said. “We’ve got to get those crucial rebounds, and those 50-50 balls.”

Izzo was not surprised that the Huskies, who are ineligible for postseason play, came out playing as if it were the Final Four.

“That’s what (Ollie) was all about as a player and he did a hell of a job as coach,” Izzo said. “And he deserves a lot more than a one-year contract.”

Athletic director Warde Manuel, who signed Ollie only through April 4, and school President Susan Herbst made the trip, and spent the game watching, cheering and ultimately celebrating just behind the UConn bench.

After time expired, the players and Ollie celebrated briefly, then rushed over to the scorer’s table, where Calhoun, 70, was working on the radio broadcast. “Gimme some love, coach,” Napier said, and they all hugged Calhoun. Then Ollie came over for a chat and an embrace.

“I couldn’t be more proud of Kevin and the coaching staff,” Calhoun said. “(The team) grew up.”

The Huskies spent four days in Germany, meeting servicemen and women, some of them wounded in battle, and mingling with soldiers and their families. The game was played in an enormous hangar, and as soon as it ended, the massive doors were slid open and workers began breaking down the temporary grandstand so that the Air Force’s work could resume as soon as possible. It was a unique ending to a unique sporting event, with a result few can say they saw coming.

UConn, too, must get right back to work. The Huskies flew home early Saturday morning, and have a game against Vermont at Gampel Pavilion on Tuesday.

“If teams are going to play us, they better come to play,” said Olander, who had four points, four blocks and six rebounds, “because we’re going to play hard.”

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