HARTFORD, Conn. – There were two unusual factors working against the Connecticut Huskies on Sunday at the XL Center. One was the rustiness of eight days between games. The other was the absence of junior center Amida Brimah.
“We don’t know how to play defense [without Brimah],” Daniel Hamilton said when asked if UConn’s 88-79 victory over UMass Lowell had been a learning experience on the defensive end. “Somebody who protects the paint and averages three blocks a game is really different. We’ve got to play better defensively [when Brimah is out].”
UConn coach Kevin Ollie called it a lack of intensity on defense. The bottom line was that no one came to the game expecting the River Hawks to score so many easy baskets.
But that’s what happened.
Through the first nine games of Connecticut’s season, not one opponent had managed to shoot 48 percent or better against the Huskies. Syracuse came close, shooting 47.9 percent to hand UConn its first loss of the season, in the Battle 4 Atlantis back on Nov. 26.
UMass Lowell became the first to reach that magical 50-percent plateau, a number that usually gives a team at least a fighting chance to win.
The America East team, in just its third season as a Division I program, actually did have a pretty good shot at pulling the upset before a rather subdued crowd of 9,848. The River Hawks (4-7) led by seven points midway through the first half and, more importantly, trailed No. 25 UConn by only six with one minute, 27 seconds remaining in the game.
If the Huskies hadn’t shot a season-high 64 percent, led by guard Rodney Purvis’ 28 points on 10-for-14 shooting, the result might have been a real shocker in the national headlines.
“I think we earned the right to feel good about ourselves because of the way we played,” UMass Lowell coach Pat Duquette said. “Our guys always want to win, so they are always disappointed [with a loss]. But we played well, so I think we can go home feeling good about ourselves. If that’s a moral victory, then sure.”
The River Hawks became the first UConn opponent in 85 outings who didn’t have to contend with Brimah, the 7-foot center from Ghana who ranks ninth in the nation with a 3.0 blocked shot average.
Ollie and his staff decided to hold Brimah out of the game because of an injury the big man suffered against Ohio State on Dec. 12. Ollie said it was a precautionary move. He said Brimah could play Wednesday when the Huskies (7-3) play Central Connecticut before leaving on Christmas break. If not then, Brimah’s return seems a virtual certainty when UConn plays at Texas Dec. 29.
“I really believe that,” Ollie said.
The Huskies looked drastically different on defense without their rim protector. Brimah doesn’t just block shots, he alters everything coming his way down the lane.
“He’s one of the best defensive players in America, so it’s definitely going to affect us,” Ollie said. “But we have to make sure, if he has games where he has to sit out and guys have to step up, we’ve got to play with a little more intensity.
“We can’t give up 28 points in the paint. I think that would have been different if Amida was here. . . . We’ve got to protect our yard.”
Most of those points in the paint came from Jahad Thomas, who wormed around inside to score 19 points. Forward Josh Gantz, Lowell’s biggest starter at 6-7, had 18 points, including four 3-pointers.
“I struggled,” said Hamilton, who had one of his typical stat-stuffing day of 12 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. “My matchup was number 10 [Thomas] and he got into the paint and got some easy layups. It’s just something I’ve got to watch film on and I’ve got to get better. I think we’ll get better.”
Duquette said Brimah’s absence didn’t change the way the River Hawks attacked UConn’s defense.
“If [Brimah’s] in the game, I don’t know if we could [score around the basket] as easily,” Duquette said. “He’s a big part of what they do. Obviously he’s a huge force around the basket.”
UConn officials said Brimah was sidelined by a “testicular concussion.”
“We just wanted to be real cautious with his injury,” Ollie said. “It’s on a very sensitive part of his body. We didn’t want him to get hit in it again. We just wanted to get him some rest.”
Brimah’s injury wasn’t noticeable to fans or media when it happened in the win over the Buckeyes. With the Huskies in final exams last week and only one media opportunity after practice Friday, it wasn’t known Brimah was questionable until just before game time when he wasn’t in the starting lineup.
“I saw it during the [Ohio State] game,” Purvis said. “He went up to jump and the dude like . . . “
“The rest is history,” Purvis said
Great amounts of sympathy were extended to Brimah during the week off.
“Sympathy from every male,” Purvis said with a smile. “Not just his teammates.”
Brimah might be prone to foul trouble that limits his playing time. But his teammates are accustomed to having him on the floor. His streak of 84 consecutive games played ended Sunday.
Ollie gave freshman guard Jalen Adams his first start in a UConn uniform as the Huskies went small.
It just wasn’t the same.
“He’s our backbone,” Purvis said of Brimah. “Once we get blown by or miss a defensive assignment, he’s always there for us. Today, he wasn’t there. It kind of showed. Hopefully we can get him back but we have to keep our defensive level up even when he’s not playing.”