In a much-needed bounce back after an embarrassing home loss to Villanova, the UConn men’s basketball team delivered without one of their starters in a 63-52 victory over a battered-up SMU squad.
In UConn’s 24-point loss to Memphis, Terry Larrier’s absence stuck out like a sore thumb. Tonight, using his 14th different starting lineup in 20 games, head coach Kevin Ollie took a chance on freshman Tyler Polley over Isaiah Whaley. Polley scored seven, including a big 3-pointer that turned the tide in the second half, and Whaley added six off the bench.
“(Josh Carlton has) been playing well. Isaiah was a little bit frantic in the first half, but he settled down,” Ollie said. “Tyler came in and played some good minutes for us. Didn’t score a lot, but hit a big-time three when we needed it and settled the game down. Those three freshmen are going to be some really good players in UConn jerseys.”
Christian Vital was hot from beyond the arc, scoring 15 of his team-best 20 points from 3-point range, and Carlton again had a strong game, recording a career-high 12 rebounds. Jalen Adams dropped 18.
The Mustangs were shorthanded already. It was announced just days ago that Jarrey Foster is done for the season due to a torn ACL, and the Mustangs had to finish out the game without Ben Emelogu, who appeared to hurt his left knee after falling on a play about midway through the first half. SMU, a team that shoots 47.2 percent from the field, finished shooting 28 percent. Shake Milton led with 18 points.
“When your shooters, a lot of your real good shooters, have really, really rough shooting nights, it makes it awfully tough,” SMU head coach Sonny Dykes said. “We were cold all night. We missed a lot of shots.”
Despite the slow offense, it was an odd first half for UConn. While they plugged the holes in certain areas—they only had two turnovers (both committed in the final minute), went 6-for-14 from 3-point range and had seven assists—they were badly out-rebounded 23-13, including surrendering 10 offensive rebounds.
They failed to score for the first four minutes of the game, but UConn scored 11 straight points after a timeout, starting with a pretty alley-oop to Adams and finishing with three straight 3-pointers. The Huskies outscored the Mustangs 20-6 in the span of six minutes after the timeout, but both teams hit cold spells as the first half wound down, and UConn went to the locker room with a 27-24 lead.
“We scored a basket,” Ollie said when asked what he told his team in the timeout prior to the 11-0 run. “It’s a play that we run. We worked on it in practice. It was an easy basket.”
“I’m not going to let him call that a dunk. That’s a layup. I’m not going to let him call that a dunk,” Vital added jokingly. “We executed (that play) to perfection.”
The start of the second half continued the slow pace of play from both teams. The score had only inched up to 32-30 UConn at the first media timeout four minutes in. The Huskies reverted back to form, missing their first six shots from beyond the arc, recording just one assist and shooting 2-for-10 from the floor in the first nine minutes.
After it seemed like UConn was going to slug the rest of the game out, a big three-point play opened the floodgates. After SMU had taken a 40-36 lead, Adams spun through the lane and drew the foul as the ball went in, and his made free throw suddenly cut the deficit to one.
“There was a lot of energy. The fans, they were great,” Carlton said. “Especially when we started turning things around, they really helped with the momentum and just really kept going forward.”
An SMU turnover led to a 3-pointer from Tyler Polley, just his second basket of the night, and it gave UConn a two-point lead. Whaley then gave the crowd a reason to get on their feet with a monster dunk, and the Mustangs went into timeout down 44-40.
The Adams layup spawned a 27-12 UConn run to close out the game. The Huskies, after getting owned on the boards in the first half, returned the favor to SMU by grabbing 24 rebounds to their 14 in the second half. UConn was able to capitalize on the opponent’s mistakes, scoring 22 points off SMU turnovers in addition to 14 fast break points.
“Not having a lot of turnovers really helped us, but we have to clean up our rebounds. I thought the second half, we did a great job,” Ollie said. “Hopefully we can carry that over to the Temple game on Sunday.”
The Huskies will practice tomorrow before heading down to Philadelphia to take on the Owls, whose resume of wins includes a special one against SMU where they snapped the Mustangs’ long home win streak.
Since Temple is small and will switch a lot on defense, Ollie expects to see more man-to-man and hopes the team can transition from a zone offense and execute.
“We gotta get back and play solid defense. They’ve been in every game,” Ollie said. “Last game, Cincinnati, they wasn’t in that. But at home, they’ve been playing very, very well, so we gotta make sure we cut them off the 3-point line, make sure we rebound, make sure we execute.”
The game is set to tip off at 8 p.m. Sunday and will be broadcast on ESPN2.