A lot can change in one year.
Expectations shift, players come and go, roles expand, and life goes on. For the UConn men’s basketball team, a year can make all the difference in the world.
The Huskies won their 17th game of the season on Sunday, defeating East Carolina 85-67.
Last season, UConn won 17 games total in the regular season.
“I just think it’s the chemistry. Everyone is buying into the system, buying into what coach is saying. We’re playing for each other more this year than we were last year. Everybody is going to get theirs if we play for each other and care for one another,” sophomore forward Daniel Hamilton said.
That team mentality was on display Sunday. The Huskies (17-6, 7-3 The American) had five players finish with at least 12 points and had 18 assists on 35 made field goals.
Rodney Purvis and Shonn Miller led the way with 16 points each, Jalen Adams had 14 on 7/8 shooting, and Hamilton and Sterling Gibbs chipped in 12 each.
“Energy (leads to that type of balance). The ball finds energy…They started picking it up…Our offense is predicated on our defense. What I’m trying to preach to those guys, saturate their hearts with, is with that relentless effort,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “We have something really good here. But if we come out lackluster and think teams are gonna lay down and say “this is mighty UConn, were just not gonna play basketball” then we just aren’t good at all. I want these guys to have a sense of urgency.”
ECU (10-13, 2-8 The American) got off to a quick start off the tip, scoring the game’s first basket on a three from B.J. Taylor. That was the only lead the Pirates would hold all afternoon. UConn took the lead just 2:20 into the game and held it throughout, save for a 17-17 tie midway through the first half.
“We prepared very hard for this game and it showed in the second half when we really started stepping up our defensive effort and we got back out in transition,” Ollie said.
UConn finished with 17 fast break points and a 50-22 advantage in points in the paint.
The key to their transition game was the play of their freshman guard, Jalen Adams. He finished with 14 points, on 7/8 shooting. His ability to get into the paint in transition was a problem for the ECU defense all afternoon.
“Jalen is an exceptional athlete. He can do certain things other guards can’t do…He really stepped it up getting to the hole, getting layups, getting pressure on their transition defense. I think he did a wonderful job,” Ollie said. “He’s getting it. He’s really getting. I wish he was shooting it better from the three-point line, but other than that, he’s doing everything I want.”
Adams has started four straight games and looks to have finally turned the corner as a productive member of the team. He was a perfect 6/6 in the first half. He also added four assists and four steals.
“The bigs were setting solid screens so that enabled me to get to the rim with ease and find other guys or just take it all the way to the basket,” Adams said.
Along with Adams, the key behind UConn’s 42-33 halftime advantage was the play of Miller. The graduate transfer was everywhere in the opening frame. He was simply too athletic for ECU’s frontline. He had 12 first half points, getting them on a variety of put-backs, emphatic dunks, and silky post moves. Miller finished the game with seven rebounds.
The Pirates managed to hang around thanks to the efforts of Prince Williams. The “royal” guard was hot for the first 23 minutes of the game.
“He had 14, then scored 7 (after half) in the first four minutes, so I put Rod in there. Then Rod started playing defense and I don’t think he scored again,” Ollie said.
Williams had 14 points at halftime and added 7 more quickly after the break. His 21 points were a game high, but he failed to score in the final 17:26 of the game, thanks to the efforts of Purvis.
“I tell him, in private, that he’s playing good defense,” Ollie said. “I tell him when he’s playing good defense, and I tell him when he’s playing bad defense because I expect so much out of him. I think great players want to be told the truth and average players want to be left alone. So you have to tell him the truth when he’s playing good and when he’s playing bad defense.”
The Huskies kicked into gear early in the second half. They went on a 22-5 run that lasted a shade under seven minute to essentially bury the Pirates. Hamilton was a key contributor in that run in all facets.
After struggling for the past few weeks, Hamilton is rounding back into form. His double-double today, 14 points and 16 rebounds with five assists, was a vintage performance from the sophomore.
“It’s definitely confidence. It’s coming out and being aggressive and not thinking about it. I thought about it too much in January so I just came out and shot it with confidence,” Hamilton said.
UConn’s 85 points on Sunday were their most since their 99 point effort against Central Connecticut State on December 23rd. The Huskies are winners of six of their last seven. With a tough slate of games coming up, at Temple, then home for Tulsa, and SMU, a win like this was just what they needed.
“I feel good. It’s still a battle each and every game,” Ollie said. “I don’t want these guys to get arrogant, don’t start reading press clippings about how we’re great, we’re not great. I want those guys to understand that…Two weeks ago, people were writing that we were dead in the water, so don’t get caught up in that stuff.”