By PAT EATON-ROBB, Associated Press
STORRS, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut heads into its season finale against Providence on Saturday facing a postseason ban, the breakup of the Big East conference, and injuries that could keep four key players on the bench.
But coach Kevin Ollie said none of that will matter to the Huskies (19-10, 9-8 Big East) as they go for their 20th win of the season, already having exceeded the expectations of most people.
“We are going to play hard,” he said. “That last buzzer is going to go off and we’re going to have our heads held high. We’re going to have our chests out, because we played as hard as we possibly can.”
UConn wasn’t expected to come close to 20 wins after losing five underclassmen to transfer and the NBA and seeing Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun retire in the offseason.
They were picked to finish ninth in the conference, and were banned from the NCAA and Big East tournaments based on a low academic performance rate, scores that involved no player on the current team.
But despite having no postseason to play for, this year’s squad shocked then-No. 14 Michigan State in the season opener and were 19-7 going into the last game of February.
Finally, things started to fall apart.
The Huskies lost to No. 7 Georgetown in two overtimes, and also lost leading scorer Shabazz Napier, who aggravated a right-foot injury. The team’s star junior guard hasn’t played since, and the Huskies are 0-3 since the injury.
Niels Giffey, the team’s top player off the bench, broke a finger in the next game, a 61-56 loss at Cincinnati, and is out for the season. Center Tyler Olander followed him to the training room on Wednesday, breaking his left foot in the 65-51 loss at South Florida.
UConn already was playing without 7-foot-1 center Enosch Wolf, who was suspended after being arrested on Feb. 11 during an on-campus domestic disturbance.
Guard Omar Calhoun has been playing with a sprained right wrist for two weeks, and went 1 for 14 against the Bulls.
He and Napier are both listed as questionable for Saturday, but Ollie said both will play if they can.
“I think we owe our fans, if you’re healthy, you should go out and play,” he said. “You never know if it’s your last opportunity to step out on the court.”
The Huskies will host a Providence team (17-12, 9-8) that has won three in a row and seven of its last eight, and will be playing to impress the NCAA tournament committee.
UConn beat the Friars, 82-79, in overtime on January 31. But Providence has won five of the last eight meetings with UConn and will be a heavy favorite at Gampel Pavilion.
“If we get beat by 50 tomorrow, that’s not going to change anything, the sentiments I have in my hearts for these guys,” Ollie said. “They are going to play hard tomorrow.”
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