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Friday, October 28, 2011
UConn rejuvenated ahead of postseason

By Conor Nevins
ESPN.com

STORRS, Conn. -- Seasons change in New England, sometimes, it seems, without warning. An unseasonable October chill accompanied UConn and Marquette on Wednesday night, portending a new winter season on its way. Twenty-four hours later, a light snowfall blanketed the ground.

UConn Soccer
Stephane Diop, from left, Mamadou Doudou Diouf and Allando Matheson led No. 5 UConn to a 3-0 win over Marquette on Wednesday night.

Another new season announced itself at Morrone Stadium that same night, one in which the No. 5 Huskies awoke from a mini-malaise that ended their four-week occupancy of the nation's No. 1 ranking. In the week prior, UConn suffered its first loss of the season, 2-0 at West Virginia, and failed to score again in a 0-0 draw against Georgetown in front of a sell-out crowd on Senior Night.

Crisis of confidence? Hardly. Late-season fatigue? Perhaps. But there was nothing ailing UConn that a convincing performance couldn't cure. Marquette offered the added incentive of sitting ahead of the Huskies in the Big East standings, making the Golden Eagles the perfect foil for the Huskies' rejuvenation.

The best tonic, however, would be goals, something that had been hard to come by in recent games. Freshman Allando Matheson didn't take long to remedy that, opening the scoring inside 10 minutes; sophomore Mamadou Doudou Diouf doubled the lead 11 minutes later and added a third early in the second half to lead the Huskies to a 3-0 win.

There wasn't anything different or complicated about UConn's approach. Matheson, who started in place of senior Tony Cascio, had no difficulty pinpointing what sparked the Huskies.

"Scoring, man," Matheson said. "We're going in the right direction, we just weren't scoring. We scored more goals today than in the last five games, so that's a positive, always a positive."

His strike partner, Diouf, concurred.

"Every time we play [at home] I feel like if we score an early goal, it's going to help us a lot," Diouf said. "Because in the open field, I don't see a team who can stop us. If it's open field, we have space, we can handle the game easily, like we did [against Marquette]."

Ray Reid
After spending four weeks at No. 1, Ray Reid's Huskies are No. 5 heading into their final regular-season game.

The win secured a first-round bye in the Big East tournament, though UConn still trails Marquette for first place in the division by a point with one regular-season game remaining. Most important, however, was the injection of confidence the win provided heading into postseason play. Both prior to and following the Marquette game, UConn players spoke of approaching every remaining game as though it was a playoff -- win or go home.

"It's going to give us confidence," Diouf said after the Marquette win. "We want to be the hunter, as players. No matter what we rank -- we don't care about the ranking. We want to be the hunter. We want to hunt teams."

It's an attitude that was born well before the season began. In fact, it can probably be traced back to November of last year, when the Huskies fell to Brown in Storrs on penalty kicks in the second round of the NCAA tournament. It was an inglorious ending for a team that had spent all but one week ranked in the top 10 and earned a first-round bye.

With seven starters returning in 2011, including Cascio, the reigning Big East Offensive Player of the Year, high expectations were as unavoidable as the bull's-eye on the team's back.

"They're a mature group," UConn head coach Ray Reid said. "They've been extremely focused from Day 1. They've given us everything we've asked."

It's hard to argue otherwise. Five different players have recorded at least 10 points on the season, and the Huskies have allowed just five goals through 17 games behind goalkeeper Andre Blake, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Jamaica.

"We're just determined, you know?" said junior captain Carlos Alvarez, who has three goals and four assists. "Since Day 1, we said, 'It has to be our year.' We have good players. And, we're like, 'With the people we have, we can do something this year.' And since Day 1 the guys have been committed."

Tony Cascio
Senior Tony Cascio leads UConn with six assists this season.

The impetus behind UConn's attack against Marquette was provided by the attacking trio of Matheson, Diouf and junior Stephane Diop. The latter two arrived in Storrs from the same academy in Dakar, Senegal; Diop a year ahead of Diouf, who admitted his transition was made easier by Diop's early arrival. As a freshman, Diop familiarized his friend back in Senegal of his new surroundings via Skype. Snowfall in Storrs, however, was something he needed to experience himself to fully appreciate.

As for the soccer, while Diop admitted it took time to adjust to the faster, more physical style of play, Diouf didn't find the adaptation as difficult.

"Soccer is soccer," said Diouf, who leads the Huskies with 10 goals. "The ball is one ball. No matter where you [are], it's a ball. The only defense is the physical and the tactic. But when you get on the field you know what you have to do. It's a ball; you have to play."

The pair was involved in all three of UConn's goals against Marquette, with Diop assisting on both of Diouf's goals and Diouf playing provider for Matheson, whose inclusion in the starting lineup over Cascio was more the result of tired legs than tactics, according to Reid, mindful of the minutes the senior has logged. Matheson provides the Huskies with a much more physical, direct approach -- "a bull in a china shop," as Reid put it -- and outmuscled his defender to turn home the opening goal, his third of the season.

If there was a lesson to be learned from the Huskies' sluggish week, there was every indication they got the message on Wednesday night. They had won 13 of 14 games, allowing just three goals prior to the West Virginia loss.

"[The West Virginia loss] showed a lot of guys that we're a beatable team," Alvarez said. "It proved to guys that any given day, any team can beat us. So it brought everybody back down to earth. Now everybody's focused again. They don't want another loss, because it hurt them and they don't want to feel the same feeling."

That pain increases along with the stakes. After Saturday's visit to Seton Hall, it really is win or go home.

Conor Nevins is a college sports editor for ESPN.com.

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