HARTFORD, Conn. — How many times have we written this team off? I'm as guilty as the guiltiest of parties, I know.
What is it about Connecticut? Perhaps it's because we all see the kind of raw talent the team claims, yet it blows so many chances. Maybe it's because, on some level, the team knows it can flip a switch and control a talented West Virginia tip buzzer to buzzer, never surrendering a lead.
The XL Center crowd, the players and their head coach were all ready to vigorously grab hold of the game Monday night. Despite the building not being at capacity (what else is new; UConn fans are some of the most fair-weather in the country), the place was on edge for the better part of two hours. It was an anxious energy, though, not a nervous one.
For as good of a win UConn had last week over Villanova on the road, this one meant more. Yep, a home win over a team some would consider not to be not as good as Villanova is the more important win.
Why? Because it extends the winning streak. It proves legitimacy to a team that seemingly lacked it for most of this season — even when it defeated then-No. 1 Texas in Storrs. The Huskies followed up that win with a lackluster effort against ordinary Providence. But here we've got consecutive wins on the road against Villanova and Rutgers, and a sweet home win against West Virginia.
The three-game streak is the longest since the Huskies took out Iona on Dec. 27. Only one other time this season did this team manage to put together three straight winning performances, and that was at the beginning of the year when the team was frontloaded with some gimme games.
Last night, Jim Calhoun meant business. He wanted to send the message before any official, player or Bob Huggins could. So he sought out what he was looking for and received it: a technical foul 37 seconds into the first half.
Calhoun got T'ed up by Mike Stephens after a defensive rebound by Devin Ebanks and an offensive one by Wellington Smith weren't called as over-the-back violations. It was a rare moment when the whistles weren't chirping — there were 46 foul calls.
"It definitely sparked us," Gavin Edwards said of his coach's special treatment.
Calhoun was in pretty good spirits afterward, but he seemed just as relieved.
"It's nice to be able to say, three games in a row, that I'm proud of the kids' effort," Calhoun said. "We played a gutty game. It's not the prettiest game you're ever going to see. ... In our league, if you don't get involved in this kind of game, you can't win. You gotta get your nose dirty. ... For those who know me a little bit, know that I don't mind my teams getting their nose dirty. And I thought we did that for the third straight game."
Who could've imagined the same Connecticut team that looked listless at home against Pittsburgh and followed it up with a flop at MICHIGAN of all teams could beat Villanova and West Virginia in back-to-back Monday games.
But, holy crap, Connecticut got tough. When the whistles weren't going their way in the second half and West Virginia was threatening to take a lead, the team always had just enough. Jerome Dyson, who briefly left the game with an ankle injury, had five ice packs slopped against his body afterward. Yes, it was your cliché-driven Big East type of affair. In the post-game presser, Calhoun praised how well Dyson did on a sure-fire first-round draft pick, Da'Sean Butler, who was 2 for 10 from the field and scored nine points.
"Butler is one of the better players in the country, and I thought he was just special on him," Calhoun said.
It seems knee-jerk and kind of scary to ask, but has Connecticut not hit its ceiling? I still have doubts about the team's ability to function in a slowed-down, deliberate half-court game, but the point is this team is now winning without a lot of caveats. This wasn't a pretty game, but it didn't feel like Connecticut stole it.
Connecticut's emphatic play that sealed the win was Stanley Robinson's put-back on a missed jumper from Dyson with a minute remaining that gave UConn a six-point lead. Robinson came up big in the final minutes after disappearing for the better part of the first 15 minutes of the second half.
"It was a blessing for me to get that offensive rebound," Robinson said.
But for as good as these wins were, let us also remember that this team is still just 17-11. There is work left to do and it's still below .500 in the Big East (7-8) and plays another critical game five days from now - Louisville at home. The Cardinals are a team that has a future that's just as cloudy as Connecticut. A bubble-bursting Big East game in late February? Yes, please.
For the rest of this week, the Huskies get to bathe in a little bit of redemption. They're not all the way back, but very few people could have foreseen this group pulling it together to beat 'Nova and West Virginia in a week's time. Kemba Walker, who couldn't stop smiling throughout the game, will flash that appeasing grin on campus all week. He told me (video below) that's he's the emotional leader of this team.It's clear, Edwards said, this team has never had it's confidence level be so strong this season.
"As of tonight, I think it's definitely at an all-time high," Edwards said.
It was just 10 days ago, a 60-48 home loss to Cincinnati, that the team acknowledged they hit their low point. Calhoun said Walker was the reason they were lifted out of the funk. Here's my brief interview with the Huskies' point guard.