HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun thought a sprained ankle would keep leading scorer Jeremy Lamb out of the Huskies’ game against Coppin State so he had a quick chat with point guard Shabazz Napier an hour before the tipoff.
“He basically said run the team, be a leader, stay out of foul trouble and make sure we win the game,” Napier said.
It turned out Lamb was able to play, but Napier took Calhoun’s words to heart, compiling 22 points, 13 assists and 12 rebounds to lead No. 4 Connecticut to an 87-70 victory over the Eagles on Sunday.
Napier’s triple-double was the ninth in UConn history and the first since Kemba Walker had one last season against Maryland-Baltimore County. Walker sat in the front row behind the UConn bench Sunday.
“He was really good today. I don’t care who we were playing, he was really good,” Calhoun said of Napier, who committed just one turnover in 39 on the court. “He threw some terrific passes. He went in and rebounded. Obviously he made big-time shots.”
Lamb, who sprained his right ankle in practice Saturday, scored 25 points to lead the Huskies (4-0).
Senior guard Tony Gallo had 21 points for Coppin State (1-3) after scoring a game-high 22 in a loss to Oklahoma on Friday. He had 17 against UConn in last year’s game.
Napier, from Roxbury, Mass., and Gallo, from nearby Lynn, have played each other many times before. They have what Napier called “a rivalry where there’s a lot of love” and engaged in some playful trash-talking throughout the game.
Coppin State took an early 13-point lead and stayed relatively close to the defending national champions by making 12 3-pointers. But UConn held the Eagles at bay by making 74 percent (20 of 27) of its shots in the second half.
Lamb started slowly, learning just 15 minutes before the game that he would play, but scored UConn’s final seven points in the first half and its first five in the second half.
“Yesterday (Saturday) I kept saying I was going to play, but in the back of my mind I didn’t think I could. And this morning I was out on the court and I really couldn’t move,” Lamb said. “Then I went up and dunked it and it kind of stretched it out. I don’t know what it did but I started moving a little better.”
Despite being a little road weary — Coppin State lost to Oklahoma 92-65 on Friday night — the Eagles managed to start the game extremely well and took a quick 27-14 lead. They made nine of their first 14 shots, including a 5-for-9 effort from 3-point range. Akeem Ellis had 11 points in the game’s first nine minutes.
After falling behind by 13 points the Huskies finally came alive, scoring 12 straight points behind the penetration and passing of Napier. Even though Coppin State snapped that run with a Mike Simpson basket, UConn was still able to score 27 of the last 34 points in the first half to take a 41-34 lead at the break.
Coppin State, which plays a very challenging nonconference schedule every year, was eager to pick up a win over a ranked opponent.
“What we learned a little more today is the discipline it’s going to take to be able to do that,” coach Ron Mitchell said. “Our guys, they like to shoot that thing. Trying to keep them calm is a hard task.”
Though they had Lamb in the lineup, the Huskies did play without freshman guard Ryan Boatright, who was serving the fourth game of his six-game NCAA suspension.
The Huskies boarded a bus for Boston following Sunday’s game. They’ll fly from there Monday morning to the Bahamas for this week’s Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. UConn’s first game is Thursday against UNC-Asheville.