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Ailing Huskies fighting to finish

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published March 06. 2013 4:00AM

Like an exhausted marathoner heading down the home stretch, UConn is attempting to finish the final week of a grueling regular season with a strong kick.

To accomplish that feat, the Huskies need to tap into their energy and heart reserves to overcome a depleted roster.

They arrived in Florida on Tuesday with three regulars battling injuries and others fighting fatigue.

Right to the very end, coach Kevin Ollie is sticking with his "No Excuses" philosophy as UConn heads into tonight's Big East game against South Florida at the Sun Dome in Tampa (9 p.m., ESPNU).

In his first season, Ollie has remained positive in the face of adversity, from starting out with a one-season contract and a short-handed frontcourt, to dealing with the suspension of frontcourt reserve Enosch Wolf and mounting injuries.

"Like always, we're going to go into the game and the guys that are going to be out there are going to play tough," Ollie said. "They're going to play together. And, hopefully, we can get a win."

Leading scorer Shabazz Napier will be a game day decision. His sore right foot kept him out of Saturday's loss at Cincinnati and didn't practice Tuesday. He continues to receive treatment and wear a walking boot. Key reserve Niels Giffey (fractured right index finger) is done for the season but will not need surgery.

Freshman Omar Calhoun's sore right wrist is affecting his all-around game, and he continues to fight through some pain. Without Napier against Cincinnati, the Huskies were short-handed in the scoring, ballhandling and leadership departments.

"We'll see what he has coming up at 9 o'clock and see if he can go," Ollie said.

With a short bench, some starters are logging major minutes. In the last two games, including a double-overtime loss to Georgetown Thursday, sophomores Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels played 86 and 88 minutes, respectively.

The Huskies took Sunday and Monday as rest and recovery days. They have only seven healthy scholarship players - not including Calhoun - and that counts sophomore Brendan Allen who's appeared in only four games.

Once again, Ollie sees adversity as an avenue for opportunity, not a roadblock to success.

"I've got a great coaching staff," Ollie said. "I've got a great bunch of guys. It's a team game and the next guy is going to step up and play well for us and represent the university well.

"It's all been a learning experience. I'm not getting frustrated. I'm going to keep doing what I do. And we're going to prevail through all of this. It's not about the wins and losses. We want to play hard and hopefully we can win some games coming down this last stretch."

The "next guy" label applies to veteran R.J. Evans and freshman Phil Nolan, who both played career high minutes on Saturday.

Replacing Napier in the starting lineup, Evans assumed increased ballhandling and playmaking responsibilities with mixed results. He finished with two points, six rebounds, two assists and three turnovers.

Nolan, a developing 6-9 forward, played his best game. He provided a post presence, finishing with career highs in points (eight), rebounds (seven) and minutes (26).

"They're stepping up and playing well," Ollie said. "Phil had a great game against Cincinnati. He stepped up and produced out there. It was great to see. We're going to keep building on that performance. Hopefully, he gained a little confidence from that.

"R.J. is going to be a facilitator out there, a guy that can be our rock, and help with some of the ballhandling responsibilities for Ryan."

South Florida (11-17, 2-14) has had a miserable season, but it ended a 10-game losing streak with a win over DePaul Sunday. The first meeting between these teams went to overtime, with UConn winning 69-64 on Feb. 3.

With a win, the Huskies (19-9, 9-7) can avoid their first three-game losing streak and guarantee a winning Big East record for the first time since 2008-09. They host Providence in the regular season finale Saturday.

g.keefe@theday.com

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