It’s a rarity that a Northeast Conference team will square off against a premier Big East program.
On Dec. 30, Connecticut’s longest existing rivalry was renewed. Despite a valiant fight during a first half that featured eight lead changes and four ties, the Quinnipiac Bobcats fell 111-75 to the second-ranked team, the then-undefeated UConn Huskies, at the Hartford Civic Center.
A pair of John Winchester free throws tied the score at 34-34 with 5:08 remaining in the first half. The Huskies then closed the half with a powerful 12-1 spurt.
They dominated the rest of the way. UConn shot 68.3 percent from the floor in the second half, controlling the tempo throughout. With the win, the Huskies improved to 11-0. It is the first time in school history that they have entered January with such a record.
“For the first 17 minutes, we played probably the best basketball that we’ve played since I’ve been here,” head coach Joe DeSantis said to WQUN after the game. “They’re just too good. They made a run, we couldn’t stop them.”
Playing UConn every year means playing in front of one of college basketball’s biggest stages with the eyes of the tri-state area tuning in and the eyes of the nation watching the game’s highlights on ESPN. It means playing in one of the country’s most hostile environments.
It means going up against a perennial powerhouse that won the 1999 and 2004 NCAA championship and has produced a plethora of NBA stars – the Seattle Supersonics’ Ray Allen, the Detroit Pistons’ Richard Hamilton, and most recently the Charlotte Bobcats’ Emeka Okafor and the Chicago Bulls’ Ben Gordon.
In front of a crowd of 16,294, the Bobcats didn’t flake under the pressure. For the majority of the first half, they outplayed the national juggernaut.
Quinnipiac guard John Winchester has grown accustomed to playing in front of the big crowds after a two-year stay at the SEC’s University of Tennessee. The junior knocked down one big 3-pointer after another to build the Bobcats a pair of six and 4-point leads. This gave the Connecticut faithful an early scare. Winchester would finish with a career-high 25 points on 7-of-14 shooting. He went 5-for-10 from behind the arc.
Freshman point guard Job Casimir (team-high six assists) and the Bobcats had no problem breaking the Huskies’ press, which has frustrated opponents dating back to the Maui Invitational in November.
After back-to-back treys from Winchester and Chris Wehye (16 points, game-high 16 rebounds, four steals), the ‘Cats held a 22-16 advantage with 13:06 remaining.
A thunderous dunk by UConn’s Hilton Armstrong pumped energy into the Huskies and cut the lead to three.
A Rashad Anderson three from the corner gave the Huskies the lead back at 34-32. Winchester then connected on both shots from the foul line, before the Huskies scored 12 of the half’s final 13 points to take a 46-35 halftime lead.
The Huskies came out in the second picking up where they left off.
Denham Brown connected on a jump shot, before Armstrong netted a jumper and threw down another dunk to give the Huskies a 17-point lead.
An Armstrong jumper gave the Huskies their largest lead of the evening at 38. The Bobcats’ Van Crafton responded with consecutive threes to slice it down a notch.
Trying to control the nation’s top front court wasn’t an easy task. Not with the Bobcats’ top big man, Victor Akinyanju, sideline with an injury and 6-foot-8 inch Karl Anderson caught in foul trouble.
It was the 6-foot-7 inch Chris Wehye and 6-foot-5 forward Kevin Jolley (who has been a beast down low in Akinyanju’s absence) going up against the 7-foot Armstrong and 6-foot-11, 240-pound Josh Boone. Jolley, a physical inside banger, finished with nine points around the basket and made the Huskies work for everything down low.
Armstrong led the Huskies with a career and game-high 26 points and 10 rebounds.
Anderson also paced UConn with 20 points on 7-for-14 shooting, while Marcus Johnson chipped in with 17. Freshman point guard Craig Austrie handed out 14 assists, setting a freshman record.
During the press conference, UConn head coach Jim Calhoun threw accolades at the Bobcats.
“They’re a good basketball team,” Calhoun said. “They’re going to be very tough out in their league. We gave up 24 points in a very short period of time.”
Calhoun admitted he asked his troops, “What are you guys doing?” in the first half.
“We’re the attacker,” Calhoun said. “Quinnipiac was today and I give them all kinds of credit.”