“It's finally happening,” said Charlie Dowd, the marketing director and senior vice president for Harbor Yard Entertainment, which runs the Webster Bank Arena (WBA) in Bridgeport. And after several years of painstaking negotiations, it was important that this game not only came to fruition, but also made an impression on the sell-out crown in attendance.
And so it was that All-American candidate Shabazz Napier led a balanced Connecticut attack, and the No. 15 Huskies cruised to a relatively easy 82-65 win over the Eastern Washington University Eagles before 9,274 fans at the Webster Bank Arena on Saturday afternoon.
Much to Dowd's credit, it was the largest crown for a sporting event in WBA history, and the first time the Connecticut men had ever played in Bridgeport.
Napier, who leads the Huskies in scoring (15.5 points per game), rebounding (6.7), assists (5.6) and steals 1.9), had 15 points and nine assists, while Ryan Boatright chipped in with 14, German national Niels Giffey had 13, while Omar Calhoun added 12 and Philip Nolan 11 for Connecticut, which improved to 11-1 in the pre-conference portion of the schedule. Indeed, Nolan was perfect on the afternoon, going 2-for-2 from the field and 7-for-7 from the free-thrown line.
For Napier, it was his 10th time scoring in double digits in 12 contests this season.
While this may have been the third court the Huakies have called “home” already in this still young season—Gampel Arena in Storrs and the XL Center in Hartford are the others—Calhoun, for one, didn't make a whole lot out of the fact that the Huskies were playing in front of their ardent Fairfield County base of supporters for the first time.
“It's just a court and a basket and a ball,” said Calhoun, who came off the bench on Saturday after starting 40 straight games for the Huskies. “It doesn't matter what court you're playing on, as long as the crowd is on your side, it's a home game.”
After Calhoun grabbed a rebound of his own missed shot and put it back in to give the Huskies a 16-14 lead with just over nine minutes remaining in the first half, Connecticut broke open a tied game with a 7-0 run at the end of the first half to take a 20-23 lead into the locker room at intermission—the 12th straight game in which the Huskies led at halftime. The run brought the Fairfield County crowd alive, but for most of the second half, Connecticut seemed to be on cruise control, barely breaking a sweat, with a safe cusion that fluxuated between seven and 11 points.
Eastern Washington, which fell to 5-6 headed into Big Sky Conference play, managed to remain within striking distance by going 10-for-11 from the field late in the second stanza. But Connecticut stepped on the breaks at that poit and forced an 0-for-6 drought by the Eagles, effectively ending things.
UConn head coach Kevin Ollie was impressed with the crowd's enthusiasm—for the most part.
“I felt the energy from the crowd—it was just a great family atmosphere," said Ollie, whose wife hails from Bridgeport. "It took them a while to really start cheering, because we didn't give them an opportunity.”
Napier, for one, would like to see UConn's presence in Fairfield County continue for years to come.
“It was great,” said the Roxbury, Mass., native. “I think we should definitely do it again. There's a lot of things Bridgeport can do that XL and Gampel can't.”
“It was fun,” added Giffey, the senior forward from Berlin. “I liked the arena. The fans really supported us. I have a lot of friends from Fairfield County so it was a lot of fun for them to come out over the break.”
The Huskies now head into uncharted waters as they begin play in the new American Athletic Conference. Connecticut's first challenge will be in Texas on Tuesday night for a New Year's Eve match-up with the University of Houston Cougars. Tip-off at the Hofheinz Pavillion will be at 9 p.m. (ET), and the game will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
While Saturday marked the only appearance by the UConn men in Bridgeport this season, the No. 1-ranked UConn women will also be appearing in the Park City when the Huskies host the Temple Owls on January 11. Tip-off at the WBA will be at noon.