5 Things We Learned from UConn's Win over St. Joseph's

Kevin McRae@@McRaeWritesFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2014

5 Things We Learned from UConn's Win over St. Joseph's

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    The UConn Huskies made a successful return to the NCAA tournament on Thursday night in Buffalo, outlasting St. Joseph's 89-81 in overtime to advance to the third round of the East Region.

    And they did it, despite their best player struggling for long stretches before coming up huge in the clutch when it mattered the most.

    The No. 7 seed Huskies (27-8) will face No. 2 seed Villanova (29-4) on Saturday night in a matchup of former longtime rivals in the old Big East Conference. A spot in the Sweet 16 will be on the line.

    But before we get there, we need to unpack what we learned about this UConn squad in its opening game of the tournament. 

    These are the five things we learned from the Huskies win over St. Joseph's.

The Huskies Are Resilient

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    Making their return to the NCAA tournament—the scene of so many past glories—the UConn Huskies showed on Thursday night, that while they might not receive the same recognition as teams in years past, they are definitely a resilient bunch.

    The Huskies trailed by as many as nine points in the first half, went into halftime down by five and came out ready to roll in the second half. They didn't get swallowed up in the pressure and kept hitting shots when they had to in order to remain within striking distance. 

    Shabazz Napier began the game by missing six of his first eight shots for just five first-half points. With the conventional wisdom that the Huskies cannot win unless he's making shots floating around this team all season, it must've had a bit of a psychological impact to see their star player struggling so much early.

    But if you thought the team would quit, then you obviously don't know a whole lot about their head coach.

    Kevin Ollie has brought a certain toughness and resiliency back with him to his alma mater, and his team plays with the same type of grit and determination that were hallmarks of his playing career.

    With Napier struggling, other players stepped up. The Huskies kept it close and got the game to overtime, where they finally wore down their foe and pulled away.

    It wasn't their best 45 minutes of basketball, but this time of year it's about showing you have the heart and character to get the job done.

    And the Huskies most certainly showed that on Thursday night.

Shabazz Napier Has "It"

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    Some players have "it" and some don't.

    After Thursday's tilt with St. Joseph's, it's pretty safe to say that Napier—the inaugural and reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year—falls into the former category. 

    Napier had a dismal start to the game.

    He missed six of his eight first-half shots, good for only five points, and he didn't get to the free-throw line once. If you were a Huskies fan watching the game on television, nobody could've blamed you for throwing your hands up in the air and feeling like your team's NCAA hopes were evaporating before your eyes.

    But Napier came out stronger in the second half, and despite only shooting 40 percent from the field, he scored 10 points, helping his team erase an earlier deficit and force overtime.

    In the extra frame, he was dominant, scoring nine of the Huskies 16 points, including seven from the foul line to seal the deal. He finished with 24 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals for the game.

    It's a testament to how far Napier has come as a player, that he could survive such a poor shooting night from the field against a hot team, and rally both himself and his team for a come-from-behind win. 

UConn's Free-Throw Shooting Is a Huge Advantage

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    March Madness is known for producing close games—there were an NCAA record four overtime games on Thursday alone—and when the scoreboard is tight, it's often the little things that matter the most.

    Many times, the difference between a winner and a loser—just ask NC State—comes down to which team hits their free throws.

    UConn was one of the best teams in the country this season from the stripe, connecting on over 76 percent of its freebies, and possesses two guards in Napier and Ryan Boatright who are virtually automatic. 

    The Huskies free-throw shooting prowess was on full display against St. Joes on Thursday night. Coach Ollie's team connected on 18-of-20 attempts (.900), and in a game that was close throughout, that made all the difference.

    Napier collected eight of his 24 points from the line, and was a perfect 7-of-7 from the stripe in overtime to seal the deal. 

    Going forward, the Huskies free-throw shooting gives them a huge advantage in close games.

    Free-throw shooting is one of those things you need to do well if you want to make a deep run in the tournament. You just can't afford to leave points on the court against the better teams in the country, and on Thursday night, the Huskies proved they won't. 

DeAndre Daniels Is the Ultimate X-Factor

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    UConn has been known—at least in its most recent past—as a school where prominent big men like to play and find great success. 

    You're sure to know most of these names: Emeka Okafor, Andre Drummond, Hasheem Thabeet, Rudy Gay and, going way back, yes, even Donyell Marshall. 

    DeAndre Daniels hoped to be the next in that line of great Husky bigs, but the junior forward has struggled to find consistency in his game. He's the type of player who drives you batty, because of his immense talents but inability to put it all together on a nightly basis.

    Daniels gave the Huskies a huge boost on Thursday night, dropping 18 points and doing just enough to help slowdown St. Joseph's hybrid big-man Halil Kanacevic.

    If he's able to play with the same intensity and consistency going forward, Daniels has the potential to be one of the big breakout stars for the Huskies in this tournament. 

    But he needs to come out on Saturday against Villanova and play the same style of basketball—he can't afford to slide back again. 

    Daniels is the ultimate X-factor for his team heading forward, but on Thursday night, he showed he's capable of doing great things in big spots.

Amida Brimah Has Ice Water in His Veins

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    Amida Brimah is potentially the big man of the future who the Huskies have lacked the past couple of seasons. 

    And while he's mostly slotted  to make an impact in the coming years, he proved on Thursday night that he can definitely do some things to help this team win in the here and now.

    Brimah, a 7'0" center from Ghana, really stepped up against St. Joseph's, dropping in nine points and eight boards—both numbers were about double his season averages—including a clutch three-point play to tie the game at 70 with under 40 seconds to play. 

    Off a Napier miss, Brimah snagged an offensive board, put it back and drew a foul with 39 seconds left and his team trailing by one. 

    Just a 57-percent shooter from the stripe this season, he connected on a free throw to tie the game and then hit two more in overtime to put his team ahead for good.

    Whenever a team goes on a deep run in the NCAA tournament, it's often not just because of their star players doing what they do. Usually a player emerges from the pack and contributes in a way that they hadn't before.

    After Thursday night's performance, there's an excellent chance that Brimah could be that guy for the Huskies.