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Kevin Duffy: Huskies shift focus to Vermont

Updated 11:57 pm, Monday, November 12, 2012

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  • Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier (13) controls the ball against Michigan State's Keith Appling (11) and Travis Trice (20) during their NCAA men's basketball game on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, on the Ramstein U.S. Air Force Base, in Ramstein, Germany.  (AP Photo/Michael Probst) Photo: Michael Probst, Associated Press / Associated Press

    Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier (13) controls the ball against Michigan State's Keith Appling (11) and Travis Trice (20) during their NCAA men's basketball game on Saturday, Nov. 10, 2012, on the Ramstein U.S. Air Force Base, in Ramstein, Germany. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

    Photo: Michael Probst, Associated Press

 

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STORRS -- Ryan Boatright hung around the court for an extra hour, swarmed by soldiers and fans, hobbling on a bad ankle to sign autographs and pose for pictures.

This, he conceded, was in no way "just another win." Friday's victory over Michigan State was the first -- likely of many -- for Kevin Ollie. It was in front of the U.S. troops, and also a national ESPN audience. There was a thrilling finish, a back-and-forth battle in which UConn kept its composure and, ultimately, the lead.

You can imagine the jubilation that ensued on that plane ride home from Germany.

Or maybe not.

"There pretty much wasn't any talking on the plane," Boatright said. "Everybody was knocked out sleeping by the time we landed."

The Huskies, fresh off one of the more memorable wins of the past few years, left Hangar 5 around 3 a.m. (Germany time), had a team meal and boarded a 7:30 flight Saturday morning. They practiced Monday for the first time since the epic victory, now shifting their focus to America East favorite Vermont, which visits Gampel Pavilion tonight at 7.

"I know it was a tough day for them mentally to come in here -- jet lag, all those excuses you can use," Ollie said. "They didn't use any of them today. They gave me a lift, came out and played very, very strong and very, very hard. Now they just have to carry it over to Vermont."

The Catamounts, who won their conference and earned an NCAA berth a year ago, defeated Siena 54-53 in their opener. They have a starting line-up full of juniors and boast enough size -- a frontcourt of 6-foot-6 Brian Voelkel, 6-foot-7 Luke Apfeld and 6-foot-8 Clancy Rugg -- to contend with the Huskies.

"Coach (George) Blaney told me earlier, `It's easy to get up for Michigan State,'" said UConn senior R.J. Evans. "We have to come out collectively with the same energy (tonight)."

Although expectations remain the same within the team, Friday's victory has indeed changed things from the outside perspective. UConn, which didn't receive a single top 25 vote in the preseason, catapulted to No. 23 in the Associated Press poll. It's the first time the Huskies have been ranked since Jan. 23 of last season.

"I'm a junior now, so the number means nothing to me," said guard Shabazz Napier. "If I was a freshman, it would have meant a lot."

Though much has changed, it wasn't too long ago that Shabazz Napier was just a freshman, wearing a baggy white T-Shirt and launching 3-pointers for the eventual national champion. Along the way, there were so many emotional moments: Kemba Walker's halfcourt heave against Texas, his buzzer-beating runner that sank Villanova, his step-back jumper on Pitt's Gary McGhee, the defensive masterpiece -- complete with a then-record 10 blocked shots -- in the title game.

And remember how it all started? Unranked UConn took down No. 2 Michigan State at the Maui Invitational Classic.

So, after one game, the comparisons are natural: Undersized and undermanned, the Huskies outscrapped the Spartans. Boatright excelled on a sprained ankle, DeAndre Daniels and Tyler Olander combined to block seven shots, Napier poured in a game-high 25 points and, following a sophomore season of poor body language, huddled his teammates with 5:43 remaining and the Huskies trailing 58-56.

"I knew we were going to be fine when I saw that," Ollie said.

Fine for one game, yes. And there's no denying its importance.

But the season is just three days old, and that classic in Germany could become a springboard or an aberration. Only time will tell.

"It was a great win, but with a loss tomorrow it could be washed away," Boatright said. "We can't hang our hats on that."

kduffy@newstimes.com