For the second time in two seasons, Maryland saw their bid for an upset at the Barclays Center on the season’s opening night fall just short.
And for the second time in two seasons, it was the surprising play of a relative unknown that made the difference. Last season, Kentucky pulled out a 72-69 win thanks to the play of back up point guard Jarrod Polson down the stretch. On Friday night, UConn hung on to a 78-77 win thanks to big plays from Niels Giffey (13 first half points), Tyler Olander (a huge three with just under two minutes left) and Amida Brimah (the game-winning rebounder).
We just about got what we expected from Maryland. That’s a good basketball team, but they’re going to have some issues until they figure out their point guard situation. Dez Wells is a talent, but he’s stifled when he’s asked to run the point. That’s not his game. Where he thrives is in transition and attacking the basket, and when Maryland made their comeback late in the second half — they almost erased a 67-50 deficit — it was Wells that sparked the run. He finished with 13 points, seven boards and six assists but committed six turnovers.
So what’s the answer for the Terps? Well, they need freshman Roddy Peters to grow into that point guard role quickly. The youngster had a couple of flashy plays in his first game, but he was a bit inconsistent.
UConn looked like they might actually be able to compete with Louisville and Memphis for the AAC title for about the first 30 minutes on Friday. Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright were as good as we expected them to be, but more notably was the play of Giffey. The 6-foot-7 wing spent his summer playing with the German national team, and it looks like he’s picked up some confidence. Giffey had 13 first half points, hitting three threes in the process.
We know that the Huskies have talented guards. That’s not a surprise. What was surprising was that UConn actually got some production in the middle. They weren’t dominant on the glass by any means, but guys like Olander and Philip Nolan came up with some timely offensive rebounds and did a good enough job on the defensive glass to slow down Maryland’s big men.
But it was Amida Brimah that was the revelation. A seven-foot freshman from Ghana, Brimah wasn’t expected to do much this year, but he came in and blocked three shots, threw down a dunk in transition and, most importantly, grabbed a rebound after Dez Wells missed a jumper in the final seconds.
We also saw why having a guard-heavy offense will be an issue for the Huskies. Many of their late-game possessions resulted in draining the shot clock and hoping that Boatright or Napier would be able to create a bucket going one-on-one.
Napier, Boatright, Giffey, Omar Calhoun, and Lasan Kromah are good enough that the Huskies will be able to compete with just about anyone in the country.
The key is in the middle, and what UConn got from their bigs tonight can only be called promising.