Wednesday’s exhibition began with a trademark acrobatic layup from Alterique Gilbert and ended in a 39-point victory for the Huskies. In between, the UConn men’s basketball team showed some evident rust, but also some flashes of an intimidating team on both sides of the ball.
Gilbert led the way with 21 points, Christian Vital had 15 points, six steals and a team-high eight rebounds, while Isaiah Whaley was the surprise star off the bench, scoring 14 points and swatting a career-high five blocks. It was an impressive defensive performance for the Huskies, forcing 27 turnovers and blocking 10 shots en route to a 103-64 victory over St. Michael’s on Wednesday night at the XL Center.
“I’m thrilled to get out of that pretty healthy,” head coach Dan Hurley said, noticeably reluctant to put too much weight on the performance. “These exhibitions are what they are, it’s a chance to get the jitters out and now we can get down to the business of the season…It’s over, that’s the best part of it. Now we can get ready to go play games, get locked in. Now we get a chance to play for something.”
Since the game won’t count towards the team’s record, it was a prime opportunity to see UConn’s newcomers, with some unsurprisingly mixed results. Redshirt freshman Akok Akok got the starting nod, scoring nine on 3-of-7 shooting with five rebounds. He took a scary tumble in the first half but remained in the game, looking effective but slightly hobbled the rest of the way.
Akok’s elite rim protection was already on full display, racking up four emphatic blocks. Away from the rim, however, his inexperience was evident, allowing Saint Michael’s stretch-four to knock down four 3-pointers.
“He’s gonna start off making splash plays–big time blocks, big time dunks. Once we get 10 games in, we’ll figure out what to do with him on offense,” Hurley said. “Right now he should be a defensive freak for us.”
Freshman Jalen Gaffney was mostly a non-factor in 20 minutes of play, attempting just four shots, making one, with a couple assists. Hurley attributed his minimal impact to missing around 20 practices from a sprained ankle, and he’s currently still only about 90% healthy. As expected, fellow freshman James Bouknight did not play, though the team has yet to announce a formal suspension.
In a defensive slog of a first half, UConn made plenty of mistakes, but managed to force more than it committed. The Purple Knights turned the ball over 14 times and shot just 35.5% from the field. The Huskies shot an even uglier 35%, including just 4-of-15 from deep, but had only five turnovers, an encouraging mark given the recurring turnover issues of last year’s team.
An issue that has seemingly yet to be solved, however, is rebounding, as the Huskies were outrebounded 25-26 in the first half. While Vital is a great rebounding guard, his eight boards compared to the 12 total boards between UConn’s three starting forwards shows some clear room for improvement.
Prior to the game, the team announced freshman forward Richie Springs will redshirt this season after being declared ineligible. That frees up substantial minutes in what was already a relatively thin frontcourt for UConn, opening the door for extended minutes for Whaley and Sidney Wilson, depending on their play.
Whaley certainly looked like a man competing for–and deserving of–playing time, putting on a show on both ends. The junior, who has quickly become a fan favorite after his head-turning conference tournament performance last season, had five blocks, including a two-block, one-possession sequence in the first half which brought the XL Center to its feet.
“Coming off last season, I knew that I was gonna have to climb the highest summit that I ever have, I knew that I was gonna have to work the hardest that I ever have,” Whaley said. “I knew I really wanted to contribute to this team, and I wanted to help us make a run and do something special.”
Whaley rushed things on the offensive end early, missing his first two shots with a turnover. He then proceeded to make his next seven shots, several of which were thunderous slams, finishing with 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting, along with a team-leading five offensive boards. After limited opportunities last season, Whaley spent the summer adding muscle and working on his jump shot, and he already appears to be a completely different player.
“No one really saw the work he was putting in,” Vital said after the game on Whaley. “He was one of the few guys who stayed during the May session. He knew the challenge that Coach had for him, he took it personally but in a good way, not in a, ‘Let me go try to find somewhere else.’ He accepted the challenge, and today was just a small glimpse of the work he put in over the summer, and a small showing of what he’s gonna do this season.”
UConn was far more clinical offensively in the second half, shooting 67% from the floor. The Huskies finally got into a rhythm early in the half, going on an 18-0 run to take a commanding 60-33 lead and crush any doubts about the outcome of the game. Gilbert, who was a perfect 4-for-4 in the second half, rattled off seven straight points to spark the run. Hurley said after the game that he told Vital and Gilbert to take control at halftime.
“He kinda jumped on us in the locker room, which is Coach,” Gilbert said after the game. “He was looking for us to come out really aggressive, especially on the defensive end, get more stops and run.”
The Huskies showed some encouraging ability to play at the rim, including a Brendan Adams to Akok alley-oop and a rim-rattling putback dunk from Wilson, who had seven points. When all was said and done, UConn walked off with a comfortable 103-64 win.
The season starts for real next week, as the Huskies take on Sacred Heart on Friday at Gampel.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @asmor24.