Recently, it seemed as though head coach Kevin Ollie had been pulling names out of a hat to determine the starting lineup. The names seemed to be different every single game, and the lack of consistency was perceived as a problem.
But Wednesday night’s 62-53 victory marked the third game in a row he went with the same starting five—Jalen Adams, Christian Vital, Terry Larrier, Josh Carlton and Isaiah Whaley. It’s a no-brainer that Adams and Larrier are starters, and Vital has recently taken over Antwoine Anderson’s spot, but freshmen Carlton and Whaley have had to prove themselves worthy of the starting five.
Now, 16 games in, they’re finally starting to get a feel for the game happening around them, and they’re making a noticeable impact with just their intensity.
“Having two freshmen big men starting, you never know what you’re going to get sometimes,” Vital, who scored a team-best 18 points, said. “But those two guys are doing their job. Everything coach is asking them—rebounding, boxing out, offensively, defensively, show on screens, set good screens, finish when they get the ball—they’re doing everything the coaches and the other players could ask for. Big props to them. They’re really helping us.”
UCF has the third-best scoring defense in the nation, holding opponents to about 59 points per game, and UConn’s 62 points are the most they’ve given up to an AAC opponent all season. For a UConn team that’s been putting up some of their worst offensive numbers in the past few decades, breaking through the Knights’ defense was a step forward, especially after struggling to beat East Carolina just a few days ago. Twenty of UConn’s points came from the free throw line, another 20 off 15 turnovers they forced. They never once trailed. Things like that made the difference.
It wasn’t quite the offense that got the job done—shooting 43.2 percent from the field isn’t all that spectacular. The defense that truly carried the Huskies, holding UCF to 36.5 percent from the field and 5-for-21 from beyond the arc.
With Eric Cobb out indefinitely due to a team matter, Carlton and Whaley, two unexperienced big men, have to fill the void left by Cobb’s absence. Wednesday night’s task was daunting: Keeping 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall at bay. Though he scored 11, Fall was held to five rebounds and two blocks with three turnovers in 28 minutes of play.
“He’s a space eater. Like, he’s super strong. Even when he’s not moving his presence is like, there,” Whaley said of guarding one of the tallest people in the world. “He’s one of the hardest people I’ve had to play against so far—not just by how skilled he is, but how big he is. It was a challenge.”
The 6-foot-8 Whaley scored only four points on 1-for-5 shooting, but his six rebounds and five blocks were impressive given he had to fight against Fall under the basket. The defensive plan, said Whaley, was to double team Fall and “make him uncomfortable” every time he touched the ball.
“Really, he’s so tall so we gotta box out his legs, hopefully get him out of the way and get the rebound. Really, it was trying to beat Tacko to every spot on the floor,” Whaley said. “It was super fun. Especially, I used to be in public school and I used to be the tallest player, so during the jump ball I’m looking at him like ‘Aw, man,’ so that was pretty fun.”
Whaley has averaged just 2.8 points per game during an average of 13 minutes of playing time. But he’s beginning to get more consistent minutes, and it looks like Ollie is beginning to find he can trust Whaley to execute, especially down the stretch.
“He’s blossoming in front of our eyes and doing all the small things, and we just want him to continue that,” Ollie said.
When UConn’s lead shrunk from a game-high 14 points to just six with five minutes to go, Whaley blocked three shots in five minutes to prevent UCF from gaining any momentum to mount a comeback.
“He’s phenomenal. We had a couple troubles, a couple blow-by’s, and he was right there to block shots. I think he had two down the stretch, which was key,” Ollie said. “To get out there, keep his man in front of him and block his shot, and I think he secured the rebound, so that was a phenomenal play by him.”
Though Carlton only recorded four points and two rebounds, his presence was felt mostly on the defensive end. Him and Whaley are beginning to emerge as an effective and energetic combination of big men.
Carlton didn’t light up the box score—four points, two rebounds, one block and four fouls in 16 minutes of play—but he impressed his coaches and teammates simply by having a better feel for the game.
“He started getting more comfortable on the floor. Offensively, he’s starting to try and get better looks and he’s trying to get the ball more and be more aggressive offensively,” Whaley said of Carlton. “Defensively, he’s trying to have more of a presence too. Me and him a lot of times compete with each other, like, who got the most blocks. I told him after the game I got him this game.”
Wednesday night’s game was a career milestone for Adams—he recorded his 1,000th point, one of 50 Huskies to do so. He finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds and five assists.
“It means a lot,” Adams said. “It’s my first time scoring 1,000 points, so it’s a big moment for me, and I’m just happy I could do it here at UConn.”
Adams said he was aware he was getting close, but he was happier to get a big bucket for his team when they needed it.
“I knew I needed a couple more points getting into the game. But as the game’s going, I wasn’t really thinking about it, kinda was just playing,” Adams said. “I don’t think I got it until late in the game, but luckily I scored the basketball at the right time when we needed a huge bucket.”