(top) has been as instrumental to UConn's run as anyone else on the team. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford
NEW YORK – From the UConn bench, they could see it coming. The clues were subtle, likely lost on those unaware of the nuances of DeAndre Daniels’s game, how the 6-foot-9 junior forward can draw energy with every touch of the ball, and how that energy can manifest itself in him fulfilling the tantalizing potential that can elude him for halves, games, or weeks at a time.
The Huskies’ staff charts Daniels’s touches, so even while he went nearly 15 minutes Friday night before making a field goal, they were encouraged. In that span, there were five defensive rebounds, two blocks, and a handful of deflections. Given how hard Iowa State was hedging on point guard Shabazz Napier, it seemed only a matter of time before Daniels found himself open on the perimeter and the points started flowing.
Then it actually happened. Napier drew a double-team while penetrating the perimeter and kicked it back to Daniels for a three-pointer that gave UConn its first double-digit lead with 5:15 left in the first half. On the Huskies’ next possession, Daniels hit a step-back leaner from the baseline, then added a layup two minutes later. By the time he drained a pair of jumpers in the first two minutes of the second half, followed by a layup on a lob from Napier -- “When he gets in that mode, you’ve gotta keep feeding him,” Napier would explain after the game -- it was obvious to anyone watching that Daniels was in the midst of a scoring barrage. By the time the final horn sounded in a not-quite-that-close 81-76 win, Daniels had come within four points of his career high by scoring 27, doing so on 10-of-15 shooting.
It was the latest in a string of standout performances for Daniels beginning in the American Athletic Conference tournament. “Maybe it’s the bright lights,” said UConn assistant coach Kevin Freeman of Daniels’s inspired two weeks of play. “When he does that, we’re a pretty lethal weapon. He’s that engine we need, that second key to really get going.”
Where the Huskies are going is the Elite Eight, a game away from the holy land of a Final Four – neither of which seemed in the cards at the season’s onset, when UConn made it a goal just to reach the tournament after being banned from the 2013 postseason for failing to meet NCAA academic standards. This year’s team was dubbed the Bazz ‘n’ Boat Show with the expectation that Napier and backcourt-mate Ryan Boatright would be the lone attractions of note. But the Huskies’ show is going on because it has become an ensemble cast at the most opportune of times.
Daniels, the former five-star, top-10 recruit Napier is fond of calling UConn’s “X-factor,” is suddenly averaging 16.7 points over his last seven games, his 44 precent three-point shooting causing matchup nightmares. Terrence Samuel, the backup freshman point guard, has used his extra minutes in the last two games to post the first two double-digit scoring performances of his collegiate career, helping seal both wins with free throws down the stretch. And Niels Giffey, the sharpshooting senior swingman who in last weekend’s upset of Villanova grabbed 11 rebounds, helped slow the speedy Cyclones with disciplined and dogged defense.
Still, Friday’s game was supposed to be defined by the matchup between Napier and that other DeAndre, the Cyclones’ physical and versatile point guard DeAndre Kane. Though the two were not exclusively matched up on one another, the expected duel tipped clearly and quickly to one side, as Napier buried the first four of his three-point attempts while Kane spent most of the first half with his eyebrows and mouth askew in frustration, whether in displeasure toward officials or frustration at yet another of his shots rattling out. Kane’s size advantage over UConn’s guards – he stands 6-foot-4 and 200 pounds, compared to Napier’s 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame – and coach Fred Hoiberg’s propensity for generating mismatches was expected to give Kane ample scoring opportunities in the post. But the Huskies fronted and doubled Kane, contesting his every movement inside, and though he finished with an impressive line of 16 points, nine assists, and eight rebounds, he made just 6-of-18 field goals and struggled with his free throws, missing seven of nine.
“Give all the credit to Connecticut,” Kane said. “They played a great game. They had a great scheme for us.”
Part of that scheme was controlling the pace. Ollie preached that his charges defend in transition and prevent Iowa State from scoring in the first 15 seconds of the shot clock, when it does so much of its damage. (The Cyclones’ average possession length is 15.2 seconds, eighth-fastest in the country.) And when forced into a halfcourt game, Iowa State found itself missing Georges Niang, the third-team all-Big 12 forward who broke his foot in last weekend’s Round of 64 win. Half of Hoiberg’s play card is dedicated to calls for Niang and in the first half, it showed. “We just got really stagnant,” Hoiberg said.
Yet after weathering Daniels’ scoring storm, the Cyclones showed late life. Freshman forward Dustin Hogue, a native of nearby Yonkers, matched Daniels’ inspired effort (Hogue scored 34 points on 15-of-19 shooting) while the Huskies’ focused on shutting down Big 12 Player of the Year Melvin Ejim, who made just three of his 13 shots. Over a five-minute span, Iowa State would rally to cut a 12-point deficit down to five, but as the teams exchanged baskets and foul shots over a drawn-out final minute, the game would get no closer.
“We fought all the way to to the final buzzer, and that’s something I told our guys,” Hoiberg said. “We walk out of Madison Square Garden with our head held high.”
The Garden was a key character in the leadup to and during Friday’s tilt. It served as UConn’s so-called second home – which several Huskies revised to “third home,” in deference to their frequent games at Hartford’s XL Center – where the program won seven Big East tournament championships. Nosebleed tickets were going for north of $600, outpacing the Final Four. Metro North, which connects Connecticut's New York City suburbs to Manhattan, ran additional trains into the city, which ended up being packed to the brim.
Surely it will be similar on Sunday, when the Huskies play for the opportunity to reach the program’s fifth Final Four at one of the sport’s most storied venues, in the center of the country’s media capital. The lights do not get much brighter. Surely Daniels can see that.