The UConn men’s basketball team made a national statement on Thursday night, taking down No. 15 ranked Syracuse in convincing fashion inside an energized Madison Square Garden.
Senior Eric Cobb’s career double-double night and exquisite sharpshooting and passing from the UConn guards combined to wreak havoc on the Orange zone. UConn (3-0) won 83-76, handing Syracuse (2-1) their first loss of the season and bringing head coach Dan Hurley the first signature victory of his brief UConn tenure.
Eric Cobb, a redemption story
Last season, Cobb showed potential but just never put the pieces together. He averaged just 1.7 points and 2.7 rebounds in eight minutes of play per game last year, and often struggled to defend without fouling.
Excluding an encouraging exhibition game to start this season, it’s been mostly more of the same through the first two games of the season. Entering Thursday’s game against Syracuse, Cobb had a total of just eight points and two rebounds in 12 minutes per game.
But on Thursday, Cobb finally looked like the complete player that UConn has always hoped he would be. In the first half alone, Cobb had already set a new career high with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, and these weren’t gimme layups, they were physical, hard-earned points in the paint—oh, and a perfect three from the corner. Cobb has clearly made a big leap since last season, as has the rest of the team.
“It’s just a step forward from last year, we’re trying to get the program back to where it used to be,” Cobb said. “We just want to keep it going, and keep working consistently.”
Though he was less aggressive in the second, Cobb was still the best frontcourt player on the court for either team. He finished with a double-double and career highs in every major category, on 13 points, 13 rebounds (seven offensive). Perhaps most impressively, in a game in which the referees seemed intent on blowing their whistle on the slightest of contact, Cobb picked up just two fouls, none in the first half, in 29 minutes of work.
“Cobb, who had just three points a game last year or something in that neighborhood, made our guys look like kids,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said after the game. “Their inside guys are a lot better than people think they are, and they absolutely crushed us inside tonight.”
Those 29 minutes were by far the most that Cobb has played in his UConn career, and so far this season, Hurley seems content on feeding the senior plenty of minutes, even if that means playing through some rough patches—including tonight. Cobb did not get the start, and when he did check into the game, the offense immediately looked out-of-sync, allowing the Orange to go on a 11-0 run to tie the game.
But after those initial minutes, Cobb settled in against the zone and was absolutely dominant the rest of the way. In a two-minute span in the first half, Cobb hit two shots inside, took a charge and drilled a surprise 3-pointer. With starter Josh Carlton on the bench in foul trouble, Cobb not only held the fort; he took over the game.
“He was the best frontcourt player last year against Syracuse, and Eric’s a very skilled guy. As he gets better as a defender and a rebounder, he’s a really good big,” Hurley said. “You saw the full display of what can do offensively: he can pass it, he was scoring around the basket and he scored a rhythm 3. Eric’s a guy who can really catapult this year, and he certainly looked the part tonight.”
The Syracuse zone, in ruins
How do you beat Boeheim’s famed zone defense? With creative ball movement and by drilling 3-pointers. The Huskies did both of those things on Thursday.
The passing was simply other-worldly at times for UConn, whether working inside-out to find open men on the 3-point line, or delivering clever bounce passes to players waiting underneath the basket. Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert each had jaw-dropping bounce passes in the second half to split the defense and find a wide-open Husky under the net.
Of the team’s 28 made field goals on the night, 22 came on the end of an assist. Gilbert had eight, Tarin Smith added six, and the team shot 49 percent from the field. Gilbert has quickly emerged as not just best passer on the team, but one of the best facilitators that UConn has had in years.
Pair that with lights-out sharpshooting, and that’s a recipe for a dangerous player. Gilbert closed with a modest 16 points, but was 4-of-5 from 3-point range. None were bigger than the one he hit with just under two minutes to play, launching it from Brooklyn, or at least well-beyond the NBA 3-point line, and splashing it home to give the Huskies a seven-point lead.
“First of all, I’d like to thank my surgeon,” Gilbert, whose past two seasons have been cut short due to shoulder surgeries, joked when asked about that shot. “I just felt confident in myself; my teammates and coaches give me confidence each and every day I step onto the court. I just shot it.”
He was not the only one. On the very next possession, Adams hit the dagger, drilling a 3 from equally as deep a range, pushing the lead to 10 and effectively putting the Orange to bed.
“In my freshman year, you never would’ve seen me shoot from the NBA 3-point line,” Adams said. “But Coach [Hurley] is out there for me. Even if I miss, I could be 0-for-5, and he’s just out there giving me crazy confidence.”
UConn finished 12-of-21 (57.1 percent) from beyond the arc, most of which a product of that great ball movement. That kind of passing and sharpshooting wreaked havoc on the Syracuse 2-3 zone, though that kind of ball movement would shred most defenses in the country.
“We wanted to get the ball down the court really quickly before the zone could get set,” Hurley said. “We were stagnant very little, these guys were living in the paint and spraying passes out to the 3-point line. To have 22 assists against that zone is extraordinary guard play.”
In a game at Madison Square Garden, with a new head coach, against a ranked opponent who happens to be the team’s most heated rival, this game had a postseason atmosphere for UConn. It’s a statement win for the Huskies, and an announcement to the rest of the country that UConn basketball is back.