Coming into their game against Cincinnati, UConn was in a funk. They had lost its last three games, and the big problem was second halves. Against Villanova, South Florida and UCF, the Huskies were outscored a combined 134-86 in the second period. They needed to break this run of poor play badly, and they did that and more in their eventual 76-64 victory.
“It was determination. These guys really didn’t hang their heads in the lead-in here,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “All the credit to these guys, in particular Jalen [Adams’] leadership, and [Alterique Gilbert] hit some really tough shots.”
A few plays directly after halftime defined the guards’ game-saving effort: Gilbert and Christian Vital were scrambling over to get a loose and the scrum barreled towards Hurley, who took a comic pratfall backwards to the crowd’s great glee, getting them involved when they had been quiet all night (“I took the charge to show the team it could be done,” Hurley said).
Soon after, Jalen Adams wrested the ball from SMU’s grasp, then passed it up to Gilbert for the wide-open 3.
This would put UConn up 50-35, but the ghosts of those three games would threaten again as backup guard Isiaha Mike cut the lead to six off an offensive rebound from Jahmal McMurray. It looked like UConn might settle into that same malaise early in the second half when SMU went on a 7-0 run, but Adams kept them alive with a drive for free throws and a step back 3, and the Huskies would not look back..
“Adams was a tremendous leader these past three days: in practice, in video, in shootarounds, in the dormitory,” Hurley said. “He carried himself with desperation, urgency, he acted the way a senior and best player is supposed to act. I think that had a lot to do with his conduct on the court.”
Jalen started off slow but would end the night the Huskies’ leading scorer with 21 points, shooting an efficient 7-10 from the floor and 2-3 from beyond the arc.
For lack of a better phrase, SMU just couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. The Mustangs shot a dismal 34 percent from the floor and an even worse 13 percent from 3, part of an overarching defensive strategy for the Huskies.
Hurley said that he wanted to keep Nat Dixon, McMurray and Ethan Chargois (all season 35 percent or higher 3-point shooters) to fewer than two 3-point makes. It was a lofty goal, but UConn did even better, holding the entire team to just three on the night.
The Mustangs struggled to keep the Huskies in front of them all game. UConn got to the line 10 times in the first half and hit 10 of 13 free throws.
The Huskies, on the other hand, relied heavily on the 3-ball in the game, outscoring SMU from beyond the arc 27 to nine.
Gilbert took over the game offensively in the first half in a way we hadn’t really seen from the him since their game against Florida State, leading the team with 12 points at the break. The redshirt sophomore dished out three assists and was second on the team with 19 points, shooting 5-10 from the floor and 3-5 from 3.
“He’s been playing well for some time now. He’s kinda been carrying the team, taking the offensive load upon himself,” Adams said of Gilbert. “It’s so good to see all this good energy come back to him.”
Tyler Polley emerged from his recent slump early on in the, draining a 3 for UConn’s second field goal of the game, then a smooth floater in the lane to push their lead up to three in the opening stages. Polley would finish the game with only seven points, but made 3-4 shots before he was taken out due to foul trouble.
Sidney Wilson was a force on the defensive end of the court. The freshman had both of UConn’s blocks, and various tips and deflections that frustrated SMU all through the period, finally getting involved in the offensive end with an and-one play to help UConn stave off the SMU comeback. WIlson would end the game with four points, five rebounds, three blocks and a steal.
“I feel like with my shot-blocking ability, and with Kassoum (Yakwe) going down unfortunately, that’s something big I can bring to the table,” Wilson said.
UConn will look to foster the success found Thursday night on Saturday against Cincinnati on the road. SMU was a nice building block, Hurley said, but the Huskies still have a lot of work to do.
“The hard lessons aren’t over. We had a good night but there’s certainly areas where we need to improve,” Hurley said.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.