HARTFORD—The injury bug was worse than ever, leaving the UConn men’s basketball team with only six players to rotate through, but that didn’t stop them from procuring a 72-65 victory over East Carolina at the XL Center in Hartford Sunday night.
“They did a beautiful job staying connected, playing with pride, putting the jersey on and respecting the jersey. Having four guys in double figures, I thought it was a complete game defensively,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “Overall, I’m very proud of my guys, you know, just them hanging in there and playing together. Having six guys really showed their hearts.”
Taking reputation into account, UConn (8-11, 3-4 the American) had the obvious advantage coming into the game. But looking at the standings showed that ECU (9-11, 1-6 the American) actually has a better overall record than the injury-plagued Huskies. To make matters worse, even though the Huskies have been playing better as of late and Pirates had a five-game losing streak before tip (now six games), UConn only had six players to work with, putting the two teams on even ground.
It seemed as though Ollie was doing everything in his power not to have to rely on a walk-on to play a significant number of minutes; he alternated Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah, which resulted in relatively weak defense in the paint very early on that ECU was able to cut through and drive to the basket.
As the minutes passed, however, it became painfully obvious that ECU was missing their best player. Junior B.J. Tyson, averaging 11.9 points per game, missed his second-straight with a leg injury. It didn’t help that their head coach, Jeff Lebo, was also absent following hip surgery.
Both teams played evenly early on, with ECU taking as much as a three-point lead five minutes into the first half. It wasn’t until there was 10 minutes left that the Huskies started to take off, going on a 21-0 run to turn their one-point deficit into a 20-point advantage with six minutes to go.
“We shared the ball, we fed our bigs and they were scoring down low. We got rebounds, we got stops, we was able to get out in transition, and that’s playing to our strength,” Rodney Purvis said. “It’s always good to get out in transition so you won’t have to play against a set defense.”
The Pirates were able to muster up their own 14-4 run by the end of the half, leaving UConn with a 38-28 advantage going into halftime. Jalen Adams led all scorers with 10 points, while Facey was right behind him with nine points and eight rebounds. Brimah, who has really struggled in his last two games, netted eight points at the end of the first half.
“We had to be the aggressors early; we couldn’t wait for them to punch us and then for us to retaliate. We just had to go out and put a lot of pressure on them first in order to stay in the game,” Facey said.
The second half was nothing short of sluggish on the part of the Huskies. Poor shots, messy ball handling and weak transition translated to four made jumpers for the Huskies to maintain their double-digit lead.
ECU punched back, and after his teammates fought hard in the paint to score five points, ECU’s Caleb White sunk the Pirates’ third 3-pointer of the day to bring the score to 46-38 with 14:18 to go.
UConn continued to flirt with a double-digit lead. Both teams exchanged jumpers and foul shots, but the toughest challenge was combating the Pirates’ hustle. ECU had 16 offensive rebounds and were able to create 20 second-chance points because of it.
“They got really gritty and tough and continued to fight back. They didn’t allow adversity to sink them as they have done in the past; they really fought hard and got over that hurdle and continued to fight and compete, and I was really proud of them in that regard,” ECU assistant coach Michael Perry said of his team.
The Huskies built themselves a cushion by going on a 9-0 to boost their lead to 60-44 with seven minutes to go, effectively sealing the deal on their victory. ECU slowly trimmed away at their 16-point deficit, but the burden proved too much to overcome.
The Huskies notched their 10th victory of the season behind Facey’s fourth double-double in his last nine games; he finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Brimah matched Facey’s point total, but Adams and Purvis led the scoring with 19 and 16 points, respectively.
Vance Jackson and Christian Vital weren’t forces on offense, but they grabbed eight and seven boards, respectively, to continue their strong display of defense. Their defensive development is something that doesn’t light up the stat sheets, but has silently helped the Huskies in their recent stretch of success.
“They deserve a day off. They’re just gonna go to class, but, they’re not going to see me tomorrow, so they deserve that,” Ollie said.
It was truly a team effort that elevated the Huskies over the Pirates. With little margin for error, the Huskies shot 27-for-50 (54 percent) from the field, and held ECU to just 38 percent (26-for-69) from the field.
UConn will hit the road and head to Tampa to take on USF for a midweek matchup on Wednesday.