STORRS – Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell could have watched game film of Connecticut for an entire week and he still wouldn’t have expected the Huskies to morph into the 1987 Providence Friars midway through the second half Sunday.
With 11 minutes remaining and the game tied 39-39, it started raining three-pointers inside Gampel Pavilion. Shabazz “Second Half” Napier hit the first to give the Huskies a 42-39 lead. Niels Giffey followed with another. Omar Calhoun stroked the next two. Back to Napier, Giffey again, followed by Napier, and one more from Calhoun.
Eight three-pointers in a row, and suddenly No. 21 UConn (5-1) led 64-53 with 1:47 left to play. The Huskies, who went on to a 73-62 victory before a crowd of 8,474, only missed one three-point attempt in that run. There might not be another shooting exhibition like it the rest of the season for the Huskies, but clearly this was a game breaker after UConn started cold as ice.
“We wanted to clog the lane,” Pikiell said after watching a UConn shooting performance that would have made Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan, Pop Lewis and the rest of that Providence team proud. “That’s how we play in gaps defensively and keep them out of the lane and keep them off the free throw line. Tommy [Brenton] is the best defender in our conference and Omar Calhoun was hitting threes over him.
“They got on a run and they made threes. I didn’t expect that. That’s not what they’ve been doing.”
Pikiell, the former UConn captain and former assistant coach under Jim Calhoun, knows of what he speaks. The Huskies entered the game shooting 29.9 percent from three-point range. After hitting 2 of 11 in the first half, the Huskies were 8-for-11 (72.7 percent) in the second half. They finished the game slightly better on threes (45.5 percent) than overall (45.3).
UConn coach Kevin Ollie didn’t draw it up that way, but he was glad his Huskies found a way to battle back after missing 12 of their first 13 shots, trailing by eight in the first half, and down 31-26 at halftime.
“When you have 26 points, I just want to make layups,” Ollie said. “I really don’t care. Just make some points. They were packing it in a lot on us, taking a lot of charges. Then I think [Ryan] Boatright (seven assists) just did a terrific job finding a couple of threes for Shabazz in transition.
“Then Omar got hot. And then Niels just continued his play, being aggressive, looking at the basket and taking it in rhythm. I think we did a much better job in the second half finding each other and playing team ball.”
Napier, true to form lately, scored 15 of his game-high 19 points in the second half. Calhoun had 14 points. But it was Giffey who really lifted the Huskies. Without guard R.J. Evans, who was in a sling and street clothes after injuring his collarbone in practice Thursday, Giffey assumed the role of “glue guy” for the Huskies.
Actually, Giffey was all that and more. He posted career highs in both points (15) and rebounds (8) in 29 minutes off the bench. He was 4-for-8 eight from the field and 3-for-5 from three-point range, including one that gave the Huskies a 22-21 lead with 3:45 left in the first half.
“There are going to be days when I step up,” Giffey said. “I had one of the key match-ups against [Brenton] who had 14 rebounds [against Canisius Saturday]. I kind of knew who I was going against. When I boxed him out over and over again, little things like that can get you really motivated.”
At the same time it might have tired the Seawolves (4-2). Pikiell almost became the first former Jim Calhoun assistant to beat UConn in in 17 tries. But a scheduling tradeoff made back in the summer - swapping dates with UConn to get on ESPN’s Nov. 13 hoops marathon against Rider – put his team in the position of playing two games in just over 24 hours.
The Seawolves were just a tad exhausted near the end. And Pikiell said his team got only 20 minutes of film work – instead of the usual four hours – between games.
It really didn’t matter. A normal scheduling situation wouldn’t have warned Stony Brook about a three-point shooting streak, or increased scoring from Giffey, whose season high had been six points against Wake Forest.
“Niels Giffey was my MVP,” Ollie said. “He’s been my MVP this whole year, doing all the things that epitomize UConn basketball. . . . He got rewarded tonight. Niels was our glue guy. And with R.J. being out, that’s something we were going to miss.”
Tyler Olander (8 points, 6 rebounds) hit a jump shot with 18:43 left in the first half, but the Huskies didn’t get another field goal until Olander made a reverse move in the lane, spinning to the basket to cut Stony Brook’s lead to 14-8 with 11:47 to go in the half.
At the media timeout with 10:42 remaining, UConn was shooting 13 percent (2-for-15). Olander had his two baskets and the rest of the team had gone 0-for-9 to that point. Stony Brook took its biggest lead with 14:44 left on a basket by guard Anthony Jackson (seven points), who was one of eight Seawolves to score in the first half.
The Seawolves managed the last five points of the half, going into intermission with a 31-26 lead after Brenton (14 points) used his body to angle along the left baseline, score and get fouled by Calhoun with 25.9 seconds left. Brenton’s free throw gave Stony Brook its five-point lead.
Guard Dave Coley led Stony Brook with 15 points. And there were times in the first half when Coley and Jackson were controlling the pace.
The Huskies were lucky they could bail themselves out of trouble by shooting the three. The question is whether or not this guard-oriented UConn team can shoot well consistently.
“I think we can if we keep working on it,” Napier said. “We do a lot of three-point shooting in practice. We’ve just got to stay focused and understand we can’t rely on threes all the time, like we did today.”