UConn Huskies Test The Market (And Win A Game)

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BRIDGEPORT — Sometimes you've got to knock on a few doors to see who's home. Sometimes you've got to kick a few tires to see who wants to buy and who wants to sell.

Sometimes you've just got to mix it up and see what happens.

UConn athletic director Warde Manuel did it with the venue for this holiday nonconference game against Eastern Washington.

Coach Kevin Ollie did it with his starting lineup.

The results?

After a ho-hum start by the No. 15 Huskies, the scoreboard Saturday showed an 82-65 victory over Eastern Washington.

After the Fairfield County-centric crowd finally settled in, the turnstile count showed 9,274 for the first UConn men's home game outside of Storrs or Hartford since Jan. 3, 1987. It was a Webster Bank Arena record for an athletic event.

Let's get the criticism out of the way: They can't get people parked in anything resembling a prompt fashion in Bridgeport. It was a problem for the NCAA women's basketball tournament in 2004, 2006, 2008, 2012 and still in 2013.

You arrived from the east on I-95 an hour before the game Saturday and it took 35 minutes to crawl one way, take a left, crawl some more, take another left and finally get to the parking garage next to the arena. Don't want to be a curmudgeon. Don't want to sound like a pro-Hartford, anti-Bridgeport guy, because I'm about to praise the idea of playing at Webster Bank.

Maybe the street configurations give no other options, I don't know, but the parking problem with big crowds has lasted a decade without resolve.

And when you got to the lot it was $20 [Disclaimer: Media parked for free]. We beat up the lots in Hartford pretty good through the years for gouging and, guess what? Hartford lots charge $10 for UConn games. Gampel charges $12. Bridgeport is $20 — too much, guys.

OK, now that we've aired our grievances, the idea of bringing a game to Fairfield County each year is a good one for the UConn brand, a good one to extend the product to an area with roughly one-third of the state's population — including many of its most affluent.

"I thought it was a great crowd, a great atmosphere," Manuel said. "My first year down here for the women's regional, I was very impressed and I continued to be impressed. I really loved the venue."

The record sellouts of 9,091 in 2004 and 2006 for the women's tournament stood until a slightly reconfigured seating led to Saturday's record. Now, we'll see how the UConn women draw against Temple here Jan. 11.

If this game had been at the XL Center? As a matter of comparison, UConn drew 8,848 for Yale, 9,497 for Loyola and 9,681 for Maine. For an opponent like Eastern Washington, attendance is essentially a wash.

Only Webster costs substantially less.

"The straight rent is about $20,000 less [about $40,000 for XL, compared with $20,000], but there also are some things we've built in differently down here," Manuel said. "We're trying out different models, how to balance a rental charge vs. shared revenue. There was a percentage of revenue-share based on how we did on attendance here. It worked out well. I'm very pleased."

The crowd was quiet at times. Look, as far as excitement and noise, most games pale to campus games when school is in session. Then again, the Huskies didn't give the crowd much to go crazy about early. Fourteen minutes in, Eastern Washington had a one-point lead. It wasn't until two threes by Omar Calhoun and a slam dunk by Niels Giffey off a spiffy feed from Shabazz Napier that the place, urged on by Calhoun, went nuts.

The former UConn players from Bridgeport — Oliver Macklin, Mike McKay and all-time scorer Chris Smith — were introduced during one timeout.

"There were a lot of families in the audience that probably have never seen us play before; I felt the energy," said Ollie, whose wife is from Bridgeport and who used his ticket allotment for her family. "It was a great family atmosphere. It took them a while for them to really start cheering, because we didn't really give them an opportunity. We were playing good defense and then we were giving up offensive rebounds."

"Omar was big with those threes and then Shabazz with the behind-the-back pass to Niels to kind of break it open was big."

What did the players think?

The leader?

"It was great," Napier said. "I think we should definitely do it. For the excitement, they started flicking the lights at halftime, which is cool. It got the crowd excited. … But at the end of the day, I love Gampel. I'd rather play in Gampel every single game."

The German?

"It was fun," Giffey said. "I liked the arena. The fans really supported us. And when we went on that run, they were really fired up. 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 New York kid?

"It was a good thing," Calhoun said. "It wasn't that close for a home game, but there was a big crowd and I hoped they enjoyed the show. Because it's closer [to his home in Brooklyn], I was definitely able to get some family here."

Ollie, meanwhile, loved the way Phillip Nolan and Calhoun responded coming off the bench. Nolan didn't start the past two games, but had eight points at Washington and a career-high 11 Saturday. This also was the first time in his career that Calhoun didn't start when healthy. Excluding a 5-for-9 game against Maine, he entered in a prolonged 9-for-44 shooting slump. So a 5-for-9 game with six rebounds felt pretty good.

"Big character games for both," Ollie said.

The question now is, will UConn return to Bridgeport?

"We're going to look at it," Manuel said. "We'll talk to Kevin and Geno [Auriemma] about their experience, how the schedule lays out, what we finalize with the XL Center and then we'll figure it out."

No doubt, this game is a shot fired across the XL Center's bow. UConn is looking for a more favorable long-term deal. Yet beyond that, the XL Center is at its greatest when there's a high-profile opponent and there's 16,000 rocking the joint. Huge crowd. Huge payday. Otherwise, it can be an expensive cavern.

"If we have a good, favorable team we want to bring [to Bridgeport] and it works out, I definitely wouldn't be opposed to it," Ollie said. "I'm only part of the decision, but I wouldn't think twice if Warde says let's go play another game at Bridgeport."

"It's a great atmosphere. We're 1-0 here. Coach [Jim Calhoun] lost at the Coliseum and we shut that down real quick."

Ollie was joking about the last time UConn played a home game outside of Storrs or Hartford. It was 26 years ago. The Huskies lost to Syracuse 88-71 in New Haven.

Mohegan Sun, meanwhile, remains another possibility. It can adjust the rent any way it wants. As far as a fan base, however, it would probably be mostly the same as at the XL Center or Gampel. Some interesting numbers: About 90 percent of the tickets Saturday went to Fairfield and New Haven county residents. Somewhere around 5 percent of the season ticket holders at the XL Center are from Fairfield County, while 50 percent are from Hartford County alone. Even in our little state, yes, we have our little fiefdoms.

"I'll get a real sense of Mohegan at the women's [AAC tournament]," Manuel said. "I'm looking forward to seeing how the operation goes, how the fan experience goes."

Yep, kicking tires. Knocking on doors. Mixing it up. See how it goes.

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