STORRS, Conn. -- Like a boxer who’s taken a few good shots to the chin, the University of Connecticut Huskies were reeling.
After road losses to Houston and SMU dropped the Huskies to 11-3 and knocked them from the Top 25, Harvard had them on the ropes after the first 20 minutes Wednesday night.
Without their best all-around player in Wesley Saunders, who’s out indefinitely with a knee injury, the Crimson capitalized on 11 UConn miscues to the tune of 14 points off turnovers in the first half and led 31-26 at the break.
“We were thinking too much,” UConn junior Ryan Boatright said. “We really weren’t playing the way that we’re accustomed to playing. We came out a little sluggish once again. And they came out and they were ready to play, they wanted to beat us.
“Once we went back in the locker room, we knew we had took their best punch and we had to come out with a better demeanor.”
Though UConn shot 57.9 percent in the half, coach Kevin Ollie needed to remind his players that they didn’t have to press and try to do too much.
“There was a lot of extra weight on our shoulders,” Ollie said. “I just told the guys to relax at halftime and play the game. Win or lose, you just play together and play relaxed. When you play relaxed you have a better opportunity to play to your strengths.”
The Huskies did that after halftime and came away with a hard-fought 61-56 win.
Boatright opened the second-half scoring with a short jumper in the lane, the Huskies cut down on their turnovers and big men DeAndre Daniels and Amida Brimah started altering or blocking the Crimson’s shots in the paint.
And after a back-and-forth first few minutes, UConn used an 11-2 run to open up a nine-point lead.
“I’m going to keep saying that word, we were connected,” Ollie said. “When it was a bad play, we recovered. And that’s what you do, you go on to the next play and you respond as a team.”
So when Siyani Chambers drilled a 3-pointer to cut that lead down to just two with 3:08 remaining, the Huskies needed to find another counterpunch.
Shabazz Napier, just 2-for-8 up to that point, provided one. The senior got open in the left corner for a 3, and though the shot looked true, it kicked out. Luckily for UConn, Harvard’s Steve Moundou-Missi couldn’t corral the rebound, with the 7-foot Brimah on him, and the Huskies got another chance to recover.
Napier didn’t miss this time, drilling a 3 from in front of the Huskies’ bench.
“Our recovery is getting better,” Ollie said. “It’s getting better. Down in Houston, we couldn’t recover off a couple instances. But we recovered tonight and every run they had, every 3-pointer they had, we challenged them and we played our type of basketball.”
Kyle Casey tried to get the three points back on the next possession, missing a 3 from the corner, and the ball wound up back in Napier’s hands.
This time, he was isolated on Brandyn Curry out past the line. Because the Harvard co-captain had been going for the ball-fake on drives all game, Napier had a plan.
“If I gave him a hard-step, stepback I was going to be open,” he said. “I was fortunate to be given a lot of space and I just tried to knock it down. And I made it.”
With the lead back to eight with 1:30 to play, it seemed UConn could exhale. But Harvard wasn’t ready to throw in the towel, and its other co-captain, Laurent Rivard, delivered a four-point play (when Napier got a little too aggressive closing out and fouled him on a 3) and a three-point play.
And with nine seconds left, a travel call on Niels Giffey gave the Crimson a chance to tie with a 3.
“It’s exactly what we needed,” Ollie said of the challenge the Ivy Leaguers brought to Storrs. “This team is going to test if you’re going to be disciplined. And we wanted to be competitive but we also wanted to stay in our principles.
“If you want to play a team that’s going to challenge you in those areas, this is the team. Because they’ll run the shot clock down and then they’ve got Chambers and they’ve got Casey, they’ve got some big-time basketball players over there.”
If the Huskies were going to escape with a much-needed win, they would need to make one last defensive stop.
And when a UConn player just got a hand on the ball and forced Curry to juggle and then try to throw it back to Chambers, only to be intercepted by Daniels, they had it.
Daniels hit two free throws and UConn had escaped.
“Nothing in life is going to be easy,” Napier said. “You’re going to have a lot of bumps in the road. But you’ve just got to learn from it. I think if we continue to learn from it, we’re going to be a better team for it.”
Though it’s still relatively early in the season, it was clear Wednesday’s game meant a lot to UConn. The Huskies didn’t want to enter American Athletic Conference play in earnest on a three-game losing streak.
“That was definitely a must-win,” Boatright said afterward. “If we lost three straight, it would’ve been terrible for us. And those three games we were favored to win. So for us to get that win gives us our confidence back, gives us our swagger back and just gets us back on the positive end of things.”
Though he stopped short of calling it a must-win, Ollie clearly was thrilled with the fight his team displayed.
“We recovered. That’s the biggest thing, I’m going to keep saying it over and over again,” he said. “You’ve got to recover, you’ve got to respond the right way and you’ve got to stay together. A lot of guys could have split apart because we had two tough losses, but these guys, they’ve got something special.
“And this season is going to be something special for us if we stick together and we keep playing for one another and understand that we’re going to face adversity. But adversity is just temporary. Character lasts forever. I think this team has the character to win a lot of games.”
Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.