Alex Oriakhi helped UConn find its footing Tuesday night against Northeastern. With his Huskies trailing 10-2, Oriakhi made a jump shot and then converted a three-point play, dunking while fouled and adding a free throw.
Nearly two hours later, after UConn had shaken its second-half sleepwalk to take a two-point lead in the final minute, Oriakhi blocked a shot by Nkem Ojougboh to help seal a 59-57 victory in a first-round NIT game at Gampel Pavilion.
So, Oriakhi contributed early and late. In between, he made enough mistakes on defense to drive coach Jim Calhoun mad and pull him from the game. Still, for the most part, UConn stuck with Oriakhi and it paid off. He had eight points and nine rebounds in 28 minutes, the most he has played since UConn's previous victory — Feb. 22 over West Virginia.
"He wasn't too happy with me defensively," Oriakhi said of Calhoun. "I just told myself, when you get in there try to get stops, and offensively, try to give the team a boost."
Much has been made of UConn's inconsistency on the perimeter. Jerome Dyson slumped down the stretch. Kemba Walker can be erratic. Stanley Robinson disappears on the wing for long stretches.
Still, inconsistent post play is also a problem. As UConn lost four in a row to fall out of NCAA Tournament consideration, opponents packed the lane in an effort to disrupt guard penetration, and succeeded. Beyond Gavin Edwards, there has rarely been a consistent big man threat to diversify the offense and keep defenses honest.
UConn has been limited, predictable. Pressure fell on capable, though overwhelmed, guards.
On Tuesday, the Huskies got a glimpse of what a pretty good effort in the paint can do. UConn still struggled immensely and escaped mainly because of what Walker called the "Jerome Show." Jerome Dyson scored 11 of UConn's final 13 points, making his final five shots, and led the Huskies with 18 points. Still, UConn also got a serviceable performance from Oriakhi. The Huskies will need more of that in a second-round game against Virginia Tech either from Oriakhi, Charles Okwandu or Ater Majok — anyone to help Edwards.
"Rebounding is pretty key for us," Edwards said. "If we can get defensive rebounds, we can get the break started. And being able to stop people in the middle and being able to score [is key]. It makes it a lot easier for teams if they can just guard three guys, just kind of stop them and not really worry about the other two."
Virginia Tech (24-8) is led by guard Malcolm Delaney, who averages an ACC-leading 20.4 points. Guard Dorenzo Hudson averages 14.5 points. But the Hokies, who lost to Miami in the ACC Tournament semifinals, have good size in 6-foot-7 forward Jeff Allen (12.3 points, 7.4 rebounds), 6-6 forward J.T. Thompson (7.2, 4.6) and 6-8 forward Victor Davila (5.2, 4.2).
"We're going to need all the big-guy help we can get," Calhoun said.
UConn is 6-1 all-time against Virginia Tech, formerly of the Big East, 3-1 on the road. The last time the Huskies played in Blacksburg, Va., on Jan. 28, 2004, they had a team that would go on to win the national championship and throttled the Hokies, 96-60.
There are bigger, better front lines than Tech's, but the Hokies are no mid-major. This is a road game. UConn, which led Northeastern by eight at halftime but trailed by six in the second half, will need a better showing.
"We're definitely going to have to play better," Edwards said. "There was a stretch there where we just looked awful, like the team that has been really inconsistent this year."
Had the Huskies defeated Northeastern by two in November or December, when they ordinarily would face such a team, Calhoun probably would have been steaming mad. But tournament play brings different emotions and approaches.
"It certainly was not our best performance of the year," Calhoun said. "But at this point in time ... We live to play again. Looking at the field, I'm happy and proud to be in the NIT and be in postseason play and win a postseason game."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun