NEW YORK— Outside, a snowstorm was raging. Fans were trickling in late, soaking wet and freezing cold. Inside Madison Square Garden, not even 15 seconds had gone by before Jalen Adams was hanging from the rim, basking in the cheers from the small cohort of UConn fans that was soon about to grow into a full-fledged crowd.
This is how the Huskies started their 83-76 victory against Syracuse: An ally-oop, courtesy of a picture-perfect Alterique Gilbert pass. That would be UConn’s only dunk for the night, but it was the first of 22 assists, eight of which came from Gilbert.
The impressive assist total—12 more than Syracuse—is just one of several categories that padded the stat sheet: 12-for-21 from 3-point range. Nearly 50 percent from the floor. Forty-six total rebounds. Eight blocks. Gilbert and Jalen Adams led the team with 16 points, while Tarin Smith tallied 14 off the bench, Christian Vital broke out of his slump and scored 11, and Eric Cobb netted 13.
If it wasn’t clear already, make no mistake.
UConn is back.
“We got after them to start the game. They were rattled. We set the tone with our pressure,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “No matter what guards were healthy for them today, we felt like we could really pressure them and speed them up and hold them to a low percentage from the field, which we did.”
Syracuse struggled mightily from the floor. They were led by a now-healthy Jalen Carey, who suffered an ankle injury in an exhibition game, with 26 points. But without Howard Washington (ACL tear) or Frank Howard (lower leg), the Orange haven’t been able to get anything going, especially from 3-point range. They made just six of their 22 attempts.
The Husky defense ramped up the defensive pressure early, nabbing three steals and forcing four turnovers before the first media timeout. UConn built an early 11-4 lead, but Josh Carlton got into foul trouble early and that allowed the Orange to go on an 11-0 run to take a 15-13 lead.
That would be their only lead of the night.
“We had such foul trouble in the first half,” Hurley said. “We had like three guards that had fouls… which took away from the aggressiveness in the first half.”
Indeed, the fouls mounted up—Brendan Adams, Gilbert, Christian Vital, Tyler Polley and Jalen Adams all had two fouls by the end of the first half, and Kassoum Yakwe had three. But it certainly didn’t slow the Huskies down.
“We wanted to get the ball down the court really quickly before they got the zone set after makes and misses—we did that,” Hurley said. “These guys were living in the paint and spraying passes out to the 3-point line, toes to the line, as opposed to shooting the ball reversal 3s that kill teams against the Syracuse zone.”
Eric Cobb broke through that zone, hitting hook shots, spinning his way to the basket and even sinking a corner three. Cobb, one of just three Huskies who didn’t record a foul in the first half, kept UConn afloat in the final 10 minutes of the first half and fueled them all the way until the end of the game. He finished with a double-double—13 points and 13 rebounds.
“It’s a step forward from last year,” Cobb said. “We’re just trying to get the program back to where it used to be. Just gonna keep it humble, just keep working consistently.”
Cobb helped anchor UConn’s lightning-fast offense. It’s been difficult for the Huskies to break through the 2-3 zone over the past few years, but with a reliable post player, it was a lot easier for them to make things happen.
“Eric’s a very skilled guy,” Hurley said. “As he gets better as a defender and a rebounder, he’s a really good big. You saw the full display of what he can do offensively—he can pass it, he was spraying around from the high post, he was scoring around the basket… Eric’s a guy who can really catapult this year into some real things professionally, and he certainly looked the part tonight.”
Even though UConn was burdened with foul trouble throughout the first half, they took a 38-32 lead into halftime and came out of the locker room with the same amount of fire they first started the game with.
The Huskies were hitting 3-pointers left and right, and then rushing downcourt and crashing the boards on defense. Then they’d rush back and pass around before the Orange could get their zone set.
“They absolutely crushed us inside tonight,” Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. “We got crushed on the boards. We got crushed inside. When that happens, then your missed shots come more into play.”
Even with the poor performance from the floor, Syracuse kept it close until the bitter end. UConn’s lead got to as much as 13 points in the second half, but the Orange fought to cut that lead to four after Tyus Battle hit a 3-pointer with 2:55 to go.
But Gilbert, who, along with Jalen, led the team with 16 points, hit a deep, deep 3-pointer in the possession immediately after Battle’s made shot. That was the dagger.
“Cold-blooded,” Jalen Adams said.
“First of all, I’d like to thank my surgeon,” Gilbert joked. “No, but seriously. I just felt confident in myself. My teammates and my coaches give me confidence each and every day I step on the court. I just shot it.”
With an upset victory under their belt, the Huskies will take on the winner of the Oregon-Iowa game Firday night at 7 p.m.