The UConn men’s basketball team has lived and died by their guard play since the 2018-19 season started, but center Josh Carlton and the rest of the frontcourt stepped up in a big way to power UConn to a 76 to 52 victory over East Carolina on Sunday.
“Coming out of his last stretch of games, a big point of emphasis is for us to get the ball inside. They’re obviously developing and you can’t be a good offense unless you throw the ball inside,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Josh [Carlton] is gonna get the ball every third or fourth time [down the court] in the post for the rest of the season.”
Carlton continued his exponential improvement over the past month with the first double-double of his career — in the first half. He would finish the game with 20 points, 16 rebounds (both career-highs) and three blocks. Carlton’s point total would have been higher if his last-second tip in at the halftime buzzer actually counted, even though he said Hurley was probably happier with the board.
“I walked out and I said ‘hey, where’d the two points go?’ I thought I tipped it in but I guess I didn’t get it in time, I don’t know,” Carlton laughed.
The Huskies’ other forwards sunk their teeth into the game early as well. Forward Tyler Polley went 5-8 with 13 points while redshirt freshman Sidney Wilson added a career-high 12 to the total.
“I had a lot of confidence working with coach [Kimani Young] after practice. After a rough game against Wichita State me and him just went back to the drawing board and that was the result,” WIlson said.
Those two were also tasked with the difficult job of defending East Carolina’s best player, freshman Jayden Gardner. They did an admirable job at that too, holding the Pirates’ leading scorer to 2-10 shooting for nine points, half his season average.
“I thought Tyler and Sid did a great job both pre-catch — before they got it those guys fought him for his sweet spot — and post-catch, they sent him to his left hand like we wanted, stayed down on his shot fakes, walled up when he elevated,” Hurley said.
Both teams started off playing ugly basketball to say the least: The Huskies were 2-8 from the field at the first media timeout while ECU sat at an even-worse 2-11, and both teams already had multiple turnovers.
UConn controlled the run of play for the entire game after that, and eventually had one of their better shooting nights of the season. The Huskies held East Carolina to 33 percent from the field, the worst of any UConn opponent of the season.
“We were thrilled at the defensive effort today, it’s something we harped on. I thought we took a step forward that way especially in the second half,” Hurley said.
Christian Vital had a quiet 18 points (if that’s at all possible), but his normal and-1s and hustle plays provided the team with a spark in all the right times. He also took over the role of lead distributor from the absent Alterique Gilbert with seven assists without a single turnover.
With increased usage in recent games, Vital has managed to turn the ball over less, giving it up only seven times in the last seven games compared to 18 in the first seven of the season.
“It was just getting yelled at by Coach Hurley every day,” Vital half-joked. “But I understand my role, in my role for this team I have to do a lot of things and one of those things is not turn the ball over.”
The only player who seemed to have a rough night was Jalen Adams, who had his first game without recording a point since his freshman year. Hurley sat him down on the bench midway through the second half after a heated exchange between the two. (“His game was over at that point,” Hurley said.)
But everyone involved with the team was confident that Adams would learn from it, a necessity in UConn’s fight towards .500 in conference play, a mark Hurley said they are “desperately” working towards.
“I loved the continued development of guys today, but it was just good to get one,” Hurley said.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.