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UConn gets set for big game in the Garden

Updated 12:40 am, Tuesday, December 4, 2012
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STORRS -- Four Huskies remain from the group that made "Hi5tory," as the commemorative T-Shirts put it, at Madison Square Garden in 2011. When Shabazz Napier, Tyler Olander, Niels Giffey and Enosch Wolf were freshmen, it was five games in five days at the world's most famous arena. Even last year, UConn lasted three games in the league playoffs.

"It's always good to play there," Napier said. "When you come to the Big East, that's what you want to do. You want to play in the NCAA tournament, but you also want to play in that Big East tournament."

This season, UConn will play in neither. The Huskies (6-1) have a single game on basketball's biggest stage: tonight's Jimmy V Classic showdown with No. 25 North Carolina State (9 p.m., ESPN).

"It's a big game, a game that we want to go out and display the different things we've been doing as a group," Ollie said. "I think it'll be a great opportunity to show what we're made of and play UConn basketball."

Tonight's matchup marks UConn's second test against a ranked non-conference opponent. The Huskies passed the first -- a season-opener against Michigan State -- with flying colors. In that victory in Germany, UConn stormed out to an early 20-6 lead fueled by a 9-for-10 start from the floor. As they've done for most of the year, the Huskies locked down in crucial possessions, "finding a way," as many of the players say, to secure a 66-62 victory.

For the most part, defensive intensity -- and proficiency -- has been there all year. Offense, as we saw in the sluggish 61-53 win over New Hampshire, has been a different story.

"We've got a lot of new players, a lot of players in different roles," Ollie said. "Offense takes time. We just have to work on timing, execution, making sure we make good passes, making sure we're not turning the ball over."

Seven games in, UConn's offense has gone as far as Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright have taken it. Napier, averaging a team-high 18.6 points per game, has developed a penchant for catching fire when the Huskies most need him. Consider this: excluding the Michigan State win, Napier has scored 17 points on 7-for-28 shooting from the field in first halves. After the break, he's 32-of-62 (51.6 percent) for 113 points.

"I've got to get it going in the first half," Napier said. "I can't be that guy that's just known for being there in the second half."

Boatright, the full-time point guard, hasn't scored at such a prolific rate, but he's created shots for others -- he leads the team with 4.9 assists per game. Both guards are a concern for N.C. State, which possesses a dynamic backcourt as well.

"They have to guard us, but we will have a hard time guarding (Boatright)," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried told reporters this week. "He's small, he's quick, he's little. (Senior forward) Scott Wood probably gets the first assignment on him, but different guys will guard him throughout the game. He's a tough player to defend and I think Napier is a tough player to defend."

The Wolfpack, voted as the favorite to win the ACC, have struggled of late: Gottfried's crew was blown out 76-56 at home versus Oklahoma State, followed that up with a two-point win over UNC-Asheville, and then lost to No. 3 Michigan despite shooting 57.1 percent from the field.

Wood, a 6-foot-6 senior, has the length to make life difficult for the 5-foot-10 Boatright. As a whole, N.C. State -- which boasts 6-8 freshman T.J Warren, 6-8, 257-pound senior Richard Howell and 6-9 junior C.J. Leslie -- may be the longest, most athletic team on UConn's schedule.

"We're going to have some problems, but if we play our basketball, they're going to have to stick us, too," Ollie said. "Hopefully we can come in and be engaged and be in tune."

If the Huskies pull the upset, it'll be the third time since 2008 that they've defeated two or more ranked non-conference opponents.

kduffy@newstimes.com; @KevinRDuffy