HARTFORD, Conn. - "I appreciate what you did today. You stepped up and got us the win. You helped out major. You did a lot of things that won't show up on the stat sheets, you got rebounds, you came in and fulfilled what we wanted, plus more."
These were the words Connecticut's Shabazz Napier spoke to teammate Phillip Nolan after the Huskies' 66-58 win over No. 6 Syracuse on Wednesday night, the last time these two teams will play each other as Big East rivals.
"I'm proud of Phil," Napier said.
In 14 minutes, Nolan had five rebounds and one block for. He had no points, missing his only field goal attempt. His numbers were not flashy by any means, but they did not need to be. They may have been some of the most important numbers of the night for the Huskies (17-6, 7-4 Big East).
Since the beginning of the season, rebounding had been a reoccurring issue for UConn. Decimated by the transfers of Alex Oriakhi and Roscoe Smith, as well as Andre Drummond's departure for the NBA draft, the Huskies were left with a much thinner front court, causing most players to have to play out of position. After Enosch Wolf had been suspended indefinitely following his recent arrest, things looked grim for the Huskies heading into the game against Syracuse (20-4, 8-3).
UConn was ranked towards the bottom of the Big East in every major rebounding category going in to Wednesday's game. But UConn outrebounded Syracuse 38-36.
"Being put in a tough position in a big game like this ESPN game and to come in and get five rebounds was big time for us," said coach Kevin Ollie, who was elated with the way his supporting class did against Syracuse, especially Nolan. "I thought Phil did an excellent job."
Going into the game against Syracuse, Nolan had only played 115 minutes, an average of 7.7 minutes per game. In that time, Nolan had grabbed 20 rebounds, an average of just over one rebound per game. Getting twice as many minutes against the Orange, due largely to Tyler Olander's foul trouble, Nolan was able to match his career-high for rebounds in a single game.
"Coaches always told me they believed in me, so I knew it would come one day," Nolan said, admitting that his confidence in his ability never waned, despite the small amounts of playing time.
Nolan may have turned many UConn fans into believers after beating Syracuse. With 6:46 remaining in the first half, James Southerland missed a three-pointer and Nolan got his first rebound of the game, pulling down the miss with a purpose. This set the tone early for him. Contributions, like his five rebound performance, will be critical in the remainder of UConn's season, especially if Wolf does not return.
"I've been looking forward to this opportunity and it finally presented itself, so I'm a happy camper," said Nolan, who spoke with a smile in the post game interview.