UConn begins title defense vs. Columbia
One of the biggest questions for defending national champion Connecticut coming into this season was who would fill the scoring and leadership voids left by the departure of Kemba Walker.
Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napier had an early answer to that question Friday night.
Lamb scored a career-high 30 points and Napier added 21 as No. 4 Connecticut began defense of its national title with a 70-57 victory over Columbia.
Lamb hit 11 of 17 shots and was 5 of 8 from behind the arc.
”I’m not trying to be Kemba,” he said. ”This is a different team. This is a whole new team. I think I have to score a little more, but like I said there are a lot of weapons.”
Napier was the other big weapon on Friday, adding eight assists and six rebounds for the Huskies, who led 37-22 at halftime in the season opener for both teams.
”Guys like myself and Jeremy, we had to actually score a lot of points today, but hopefully it’s not going to be like that all the time,” Napier said. ”I told my guys, I don’t like scoring a lot of points. I love passing the ball.”
Napier found very few people to pass to in the post. Tyler Olander had eight points and eight rebounds, but Alex Oriakhi had just two points and highly touted freshman Andre Drummond didn’t score and had four boards.
UConn did have 13 blocked shots, but held just a 43-41 rebounding advantage and was outrebounded 20-10 on the offensive glass, drawing the wrath of coach Jim Calhoun.
”We don’t have anybody in the frontcourt that can play right now, or is ready to play right now, except for Tyler, who understands how to play basketball,” he said.
Noruwa Agho, the Ivy League scoring leader last season, had 16 points for Columbia.
The victory extended the Huskies’ winning streak to 12 games, after the 11-0 run that gave UConn the NCAA title in April.
Lamb took Columbia’s Matt Johnson 1-on-1 at the end of the first half, stepping away on an ankle-breaking move and launching a three-pointer that made it 37-22. UConn held the Lions to 29 percent shooting, 24 percent in the first half.
Napier had seven points in the first five minutes, keying an early 8-0 run with a steal and a layup, and the Huskies went ahead 13-5.
He hit a three-pointer, drew a charge on the next possession and had an assist on a dunk by Roscoe Smith to key a 10-0 run and UConn stretched the lead to 25-10.
Lamb had a dunk and steal that keyed a 10-0 run in the second half that extended the lead to 49-31. He put the exclamation point on the game by drawing a foul with a baseline drive and dunk that made it 56-38 after the free throw.
But Columbia, which had four starters return from a team that went 15-13 and 6-8 in the Ivy League last season, fought back using the three-point shot. The Lions launched 31 threes, making nine. A basket by Mark Cisco made it 63-53 with three minutes left.
Agho had four threes, while Blaise Staab, the cousin of former UConn player Jake Voskuhl, added 11 points and Brian Barbour had 10.
”I thought it was a very competitive game for us,” coach Kyle Smith said. ”We dug in there and gave them a little threat there in the second half.”
Drummond, UConn’s 6-foot-10 freshman, played only 12 minutes after picking up two first-half fouls, and his third less than five minutes into the second half. He was wearing a mask after breaking his nose in a practice and went down in pain after being hit in the face by Staab with less than a minute to play.
Connecticut improved to 22-4 in season openers under Calhoun, and 68-4 against non-conference opponents at Gampel Pavilion.
Connecticut is 7-2 against the Lions, a team it hadn’t played since Dec. 28, 1983, when the Huskies won 85-60. Referee Tim Higgins officiated both that game and UConn’s win on Friday. Columbia hasn’t beaten UConn since 1976.
The Huskies unveiled their national championship plaque before the game, but had a few problems celebrating. The arena’s video boards didn’t work for the first half, forcing the postponement of the team’s new opening montage until halftime. And during the unveiling ceremony for the championship plaque, the staff had trouble reaching the rope that held the drape. That problem was solved by the UConn mascot, who lifted a small child up to grab it and complete the unveiling.
UConn’s big men, Calhoun said, ”Had as difficult a time rebounding as we did unveiling that banner.”
”We are not the No. 4 team in the country at this point,” he said. ”Not even near it.”