If you’re looking for the difference maker between UConn and Drexel during the Huskies 97-65 win on Tuesday night, there are a few categories on the stat sheet you could look toward. The 21 attempts at the free throw line. A 24-point differential in points off turnovers. The 40 percent difference in shooting from behind the arc.
However, the one stat that best explains why the Huskies were playing benchwarmers in the games’ closing minutes and left the floor to standing ovation is the one that doesn’t show up in the box score.
The Huskies had an overwhelming lead in hustle plays. Guards Alterique Gilbert and Chrisitan Vital somehow pulled down rebounds over Drexel forwards that towered over them. Whenever there was a loose ball, the men in white jerseys seemed to be the first ones to floor. As head coach Dan Hurley screamed on the sidelines for “40 minutes!” his players responded, outworking Drexel to the final whistle.
“It’s not too hard with a coach like Hurley. He kind of has that same in energy in his coaching job. So if he’s doing that in a full suit, he expects that out of his players,” said senior guard Jalen Adams. “Once you see one guy dive for a loose ball, the next guy is willing to dive and it’s just a trickle down effect.”
UConn was fresh off a 61-46 win over Manhattan on Saturday. The Huskies started that game lethargically, only shooting 28 percent from the field in the first half before waking up in the second half. Despite the victory, it was clear that Hurley and his players were treating the game as a loss.
“These guys wanted to atone for an empty win, a hollow win, a performance if you’re playing or coaching at UConn you cant feel good about,” said Hurley. “I think these guys understood you can’t show up and play that way.
There was no slow start on Tuesday. From the opening tip, the Huskies were in the drivers’ seat and look determined to not give up the wheel for the duration of the game. On the Huskies’ first possession, Gilbert and Josh Carlton both pulled in offensive rebounds to keep the play alive and eventually allowed Vital to hit a three to put UConn on the scoreboard.
However, after Vital launched a three very early in the shot clock, Hurley immediately motioned for Tarin Smith to check into the game at the 3:30 mark. Smith took the reigns of the offense and took the ball to the rim, drawing contact and earning trips to the free throw line seemingly every time he touched the ball. For over three minutes in the first half, Smith was the Huskies’ only source of offense, scoring nine straight unanswered points. Smith finished with 20 points with a perfect 7-for7 shooting performance from the field.
“He just looked decisive,” Hurley said. “I didn’t think he over dribbled, I thought he got downhill quickly. He did work the baseline when he couldn’t finish at the rim.”
Smith’s six trips to the free throw line were a good portion of the 21 fouls drawn by UConn and the 42 total fouls drawn by both teams. The referees were not afraid to blow the whistle early and often, drawing the ire of both Hurley and the 7,000 fans in attendance. One victim of the whistle-happy refs was Adams, forced to the bench early in the first half with two personal fouls.
Despite the early foul trouble, Adams bounced back from his putrid two-point performance against Manhattan last Saturday. After a one-game experiment with a headband and subsequent 1-for-4 shooting performance last time out, the headgear-less Adams erupted for 20 points on 8-of-12 shooting on Tuesday night.
“I have sky-high expectations for Jalen Adams and so does he,” Hurley said. “We talked about atonement. Atonement for our performance on Saturday and he led the charge that way.”
As for the headband?
“It’s over for the headband,” laughed Adams.
The Huskies opened up a 20-point lead with just over five minutes remaining in the first half courtesy of a two-way play from Sidney Wilson. After Drexel’s Alihan Demir escaped from his defender, the 6-9 forward thought he had an easy basket.
He did not expect to see Sidney Wilson waiting at the rim for him. Wilson swatted the ball with ferocity and some profanity and the Huskies regained possession. After Josh Carlton missed a layup, Wilson was at the rim again; this time to flush home the dunk and send the crowd into a frenzy.
Entering the second half with a 42-28 lead, the Huskies started to generate even more separation by hitting seven of their first eight shots. If there was a place to improve in the second half, it was from behind the arc and the Huskies did just that. After just hitting two three-pointers in the games’ first 20 minutes, UConn caught fire from deep, shooting 8-11 in the second half. Forward Tyler Polley and Vital in particular had the hot hands, hitting five combined shots from three-point land.
As UConn’s lead grew and the clock started to dwindle, Hurley kept screaming, falling to his knees, and pleading with his team for effort like they were down double-digits. After a Drexel three-pointer cut UConn’s lead to 89-57 with less than five minutes left, Hurley bellowed at his team so loud that a person just walking into the arena would have thought UConn just lost the national championship.
“It shouldn’t be a hard concept,” said Hurley. “You should be able to fully focus and concentrate on both ends of the court for 40 minutes.”
Although Drexel did manage to find their stroke and shoot 47 percent from the field in the second half, the Huskies had long ago won the battle of boards and races to the floor. The final score was just a formality. The win could have been handed to UConn in the first half when Vital, Wilson and Carlton all beat a couple of blue jerseys to the loose ball within a few plays of each other.
Some nights it’s just as simple as wanting it more than the other team.
The Huskies now turn to their sights to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden for a game against the defending national champions, Villanova. The Wildcats blew out UConn by 20-points in their meeting last year and although they have lost two straight and fallen out of the Top-25, it’s still a chance for the Huskies to see just how far they’ve come since last season.
“It’s going to mean everything to us,” said Vital. “We’ve had this one circled and now that Saturday is coming up, we’ve just got to be prepared as much as possible.”
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.