STORRS, Conn. – When Omar Calhoun arrived at Connecticut as a freshman in 2012-13, it never crossed his mind that he could earn more game minutes by playing well on defense.
Calhoun came to the Huskies as the New York State Gatorade and New York Class AA Player of the Year. He did average 1.8 steals as a senior at Christ the King High School, but player of the year awards go to guys who fill the basket – and Calhoun was not the exception. He averaged 25.7 points and 8 rebounds that year.
Things are different now that Calhoun is a senior. UConn coach Kevin Ollie offered up a pre-game pep talk during warm-ups Saturday before the Huskies crushed Ohio State, 75-55. Ollie told the 6-foot-6 guard from Brooklyn to be ready and reminded him to play hard on defense.
Calhoun did his job and the result was 26 minutes on the floor.
But he also managed a perfect day shooting, hitting all five field goals he took, including four from 3-point range. He finished with a season-high 14 points, leading five players in double-figures as UConn (6-3) shot 60.4 percent against the Buckeyes (4-5). It was the best shooting performance since the Huskies made 66 percent in a win over Maryland-Eastern Shore on Dec. 17, 2012.
Calhoun and the other Huskies seem to understand that good offense begins with even better defense.
“They want me to play defense,” Calhoun said of Ollie and the UConn coaching staff. “I wanted to make sure I was defending and hitting on the defensive end. I was doing that and that’s what kept me on the court.”
It never hurts to have an offensive microwave warming up on the bench. Calhoun entered the game with 16:17 to play in the first half. His first contribution was an assist to forward Shonn Miller for a jumper that gave UConn an 11-7 lead. Calhoun’s layup with 13:52 remaining maintained a four-point lead.
“When I hit the first shot, I knew it was going to be a big day,” Calhoun said. “I told Sterling [Gibbs] after he found me the first time that if he kept finding me, he might have 10 assists because I was feeling good.”
By halftime Calhoun had passed his season-high of nine points and had 11. One more 3-pointer in the second half and Calhoun finished with his most productive scoring day since recording 16 points against Maine on Dec. 6 2013.
That’s right, the most in over two years.
“Omar played a huge game,” Ollie said. “I was very proud of him. But it wasn’t just his scoring. It was him punching. Not literally punching, it’s just doing all the tough things we ask our guys to do.”
Since returning from Tuesday night’s loss to No. 6 Maryland in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, Ollie had demanded more from all his players. Things got physical in practice as Ollie questioned the toughness of his players, who fell behind the Terps by 20 points in the first half and couldn’t sustain a big enough comeback to avoid a third loss under similar circumstances.
Saturday, the Huskies jumped on the Buckeyes quickly. UConn shot 63.3 percent (19 of 30) from the field, 62.5 percent (5 of 8) from 3-point range and took a 21-point lead in the final minute of the first half. UConn has 12 assists on 19 baskets and only five turnovers.
“That was one of the best halves of basketball I’ve seen in a long time,” Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
Ollie, who picked up a technical foul late against Maryland and then confessed to remaining in a bad mood for a couple of days, enjoyed the first 20 minutes as well.
“Yeah, it was very enjoyable,” Ollie said. “Everybody played free. We wanted to play fast. We also wanted to play physical. That’s what we were promoting the last two days in practice. Our guys responded very, very well.
“To get 45 points, that’s our highest in a half this season. But to hold them to 31 percent shooting was something we wanted to focus on. You can shoot higher [percentages] when you get stops.”
Guard Rodney Purvis had 13 points for UConn. Miller, guard Jalen Adams, and center Amida Brimah all finished with 11. UConn began the game with dunks by Brimah and Miller that ignited the sellout crowd of 10,167 and gave UConn a 4-0 lead.
“Last night, we saw tents outside of Gampel, so we knew the students were excited,” Miller said. “We wanted to come out and be aggressive, have them be loud and have them behind us.”
Ohio State (4-5) has now lost five of its last seven games. The Buckeyes trimmed a 23-point deficit to 12 on a layup by Marc Loving (14 points) with 13:24 left in the game. But a UConn scoreless stretch of 6 minutes, 45 seconds ended on a Hamilton (9 points) basket with 12:09 remaining, and the Huskies built the lead back to 69-46 on a dunk by Brimah.
Ohio State’s Jae’Sean Tate led all scorers with 15 points. But this was Calhoun’s afternoon to shine.
“When [Calhoun] is open you’ve got to give him the basketball,” said Adams, who had four assists, four rebounds and one turnover to go with his points. “Once he makes one or two, just keep getting it to him. He’s on fire.
When he gets fired up, everybody gets fired up. He’s a popular guy on the team. Once he is clicking, everybody is clicking. That helps us out a lot.”