On paper, it looked like a win but the reality is that the University of South Florida is a tough team to beat, especially in Tampa. The Huskies were reintroduced to that fact Wednesday night in a tough Big East matchup -- UConn's first of the season and the first of three without suspended coach Jim Calhoun -- that came down to the final shot. Ninth-ranked UConn got out of Florida with a 60-57 win, running their record to 11-1 (1-0), but it wasn't easy. In the three previous matchups facing USF in Tampa, the Huskies were 2-1 with both wins coming in overtime.
On Wednesday night, UConn avoided that fate but the game was a struggle nonetheless. Thankfully, preseason All-American Jeremy Lamb played like, well, a preseason All-American, especially in the second half and that proved to be the difference. He scored 16 of game-high 23 points in the final 30 minutes, including a jumper and three free throws in the last 1:46.
Lamb had a quiet first half, flashing occasionally but often giving way to other teammates at the offense end. By the time it was over, however, he was the only UConn player in double-figures, and he had outscored the other four starters -- Roscoe Smith, Alex Oriakhi, Andre Drummond and Shabazz Napier -- 23-18.
"Jeremy was being played really, really well, and very physical," said associate head coach George Blaney, who served as the Huskies' interim coach in Calhoun's absence. "He adjusted in the second half by coming tighter off the screens. Twenty-three points in this kind of game is a big-time number."
USF coach Stan Heath said his team had opportunities but couldn't take advantage of them.
"We had our chances. We played well. We played hard. Obviously, Lamb is Lamb. When Lamb's playing like that, that's what a pro looks like. He just made some tough shots and took over."
Despite shooting 55.6 percent from the field and 50 percent from behind the arc, Napier knows UConn can play much better.
"We're a better team than a three-point win," he said (via the Hartford Courant) after a 1-for-9 effort from the floor. "No disrespect to South Florida, they have a hell of a team. Jeremy was the only one who was scoring. Imagine if we all were scoring, that's a 10-15 point game."
The stat sheet also revealed that UConn was out rebounded in the first half, a fact Calhoun would have certainly stressed had he been there. Turns out, he was there in spirit.
"I think coach Calhoun addressed them at halftime, somehow," Blaney said, "We talked about rebounding. He would have loved this game, because it was competitive. When you see so many guys hitting the floor for loose balls, you know the teams are getting after it."
Next up: UConn hosts St. John's at the XL Center Saturday at noon.