UConn men’s basketball opened up their first sequence of the season on a tie-up, a fast break and Alterique Gilbert feeding an inside pass to Josh Carlton. No UConn fan had to stay standing to clap for seven minutes straight.
And with a thunderous response from the sold-out Gampel crowd, the Dan Hurley era began.
“I’d like to thank the crowd for showing up and supporting us tonight,” Hurley said after the game. “They were awesome. The students were awesome. We’re trying to build this thing back to an elite level and this team needs that.”
Led by sophomore Josh Carlton’s career-high 17 points and eight rebounds, the Huskies (1-0) defeated Morehead State (1-1) by a score of 80-70 on Thursday night. Jalen Adams trailed close behind with 16 points, and two other Huskies—Alterique Gilbert and Tarin Smith—scored double-digit points with 15 and 12, respectively.
While the Huskies played scrappy defense and quick offense, it was the energy from the crowd and the sidelines that made Thursday night feel different than the past two years. On a play in which Carlton dove for the ball as it flew out of bounds near the basket, Hurley rushed from his spot by the bench to help his player to his feet.
That kind of energy is infectious.
“It makes me wanna dive back on the floor,” Carlton said. “Anytime you see him coming over after making a tough play, you’re not reluctant to dive back on the floor. Having him close like that, you’d run through a brick wall for him.”
“The crowd was great,” Carlton added. “It was great seeing a sold-out game for a team that was not our rival or a high major team, just that energy… it’s easy to play. When you got a crowd like that, it’s easy.”
It was a breakout night of sorts for Carlton, who averaged 4.4 points, 3.7 rebounds and 15.2 minutes per game last year. With a year already under his belt, he has newfound confidence and talent that Hurley thinks could make him one of the best players on a very good UConn team.
“He’s got real talent. He’s gonna be in the deep end of the pool this year,” Hurley said. “He’s gotta emerge as a good, young big for this to work for us this year; for us to surprise people and be better than people think. He had a great practice yesterday. He was doing some real man stuff yesterday around the basket. He got his teammates excited.”
In opposition to their start against Southern Connecticut, where the first 10 minutes were ridden with sloppy play, the Huskies got off to a relatively stronger start against Morehead state. The offense was quick and past-paced, featuring a plethora of ball movement and attempts in the post.
The defense, though, was still messy. They allowed 14 3-point attempts in the first half and couldn’t prevent the Eagles from driving to the basket—their 38.2 percentage from the floor was largely due to the team’s own errors. The Huskies committed nine fouls in the first half and 20 overall, including two from Jalen Adams that resulted in him playing just eight minutes in the opening half. But even with Jalen sidelined for the majority of the half, the team was able to hold onto their lead.
“That was good for us, because Jalen, in 22 minutes, just an easy 16 [points] in a game where he couldn’t get into a rhythm because of fouls… that was a good experience for us to go through,” Hurley said.
Tarin Smith helped pick up some of that slack. After Morehead State cut UConn’s lead to 16-14 with 10 minutes to go in the first half, Gilbert fed Tarin Smith a dunk who then returned the favor by getting the assist on a Gilbert 3-pointer that sent Morehead State into a timeout.
The Huskies ended the first half clearly drained, allowing a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that cut their lead to 37-33 entering halftime. And despite many chances to put the game away in the second half, the team just didn’t get over the hump.
“There were pockets in that game where we had the chance to extend,” Hurley said. “We just showed a little bit of, I don’t want to say immaturity, but a lack of a killer instinct where we had a chance to kind of bury them a couple times but we let it hang around and be a 10-point game.”
The Huskies started to pull away in the second half after Brendan Adams hit a 3-pointer with 11:07 to go, spurring a 10-2 run that put UConn up 63-49, and they never looked back. But they still have a lot of work to do, especially before taking on Syracuse in a week.
“I think we gave up too many points. We don’t wanna give up too many 3s,” Carlton said. “Just not give up so many second-chance points, free points, points off turnovers. And I feel as long as we group rebound, send four or five guys to the glass, it shouldn’t be a problem to rebound.”