As with a season-opening game for any team, the UConn men’s basketball team needed a half to knock off some rust. Fortunately for Dan Hurley, his team was able to pick it up in the second act and walk away with a 89-67 win over Sacred Heart.
Hurley will take the win, but wasn’t pleased with how his team got there. The Huskies fell short in their coach’s expectations both emotionally and with their on-court performance.
“Any win is a good win … Obviously quite a few parts of the night don’t sit well and obviously need to be addressed,” Hurley said. “The rebounding was indescribably bad. I thought our spirit, in terms of the overall group, thought we’d be, coming into the first half, a lot more emotional, a lot more joyful, a lot more excited.”
Out of the whole bunch, Hurley named two guys, Christian Vital and Brendan Adams, who reached the very high bar Hurley sets. Everyone else was either “just okay” or “nowhere near” where they need to be. Vital scored 17 points, 15 after halftime, to go along with seven rebounds and seven steals.
“Christian willed us through that with his competitiveness and self-belief. We need that to flow through the team more … I’m a fiery guy, Christian’s a fiery guy, that needs to run through the veins of the entire team. Chrstian almost looks like an outlier out there at times.”
When the senior backcourt struggled early (Alterique Gilbert and Vital combined 1-7 in the first half), it was Adams and Sid Wilson who stepped up. Adams scored eight of his career-high 15 points in the first half alongside Wilson’s 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting off the bench.
“Big time, big time,” Vital said on the bench’s first half performance. “Al and I weren’t really too aggressive. We kinda wanted to see what other guys were gonna do, because we’ve been telling them to shoot … We just wanted to make sure the guys were confident.”
Hurley wants more out of Wilson, saying his redshirt sophomore forward/guard had a lot of “in-between plays” that the average fan normally wouldn’t notice. He pointed to a specific play where Wilson didn’t go after a loose ball for an easy transition dunk, but rather sat back while Sacred Heart picked it up and made a three — the story of the first half.
The Pioneers (0-2) out-hustled the Huskies in the opening 20 minutes. In a game where the first field goal wasn’t scored well-past the four-minute mark, the Huskies were out-rebounded 28-13 and 11-3 on the offensive glass. 10 Sacred Heart second chance points and an 11-for-11 mark from the free throw line had the Huskies up just 40-37 heading into the locker room.
Josh Carlton spent most of the first half on the bench with Isaiah Whaley thanks to foul trouble, but the 6-foot-11 center came out ready to go in the second. He scored the first eight points after halftime, scoring off an assist from Gilbert, on a second chance basket underneath and in the fast break. Though he finished with 18 points and eight boards, Hurley’s expectations apply to his big man too.
“I have a higher standard, a higher bar for him than that,” Hurley said of Carlton. “I thought he should’ve had 26 and 12 tonight, been a little more dominant. I’ll take the 18 and eight. He just can’t be good for us, he’s gotta be really, really good for this team.”
“Just came out trying to play more aggressive,” Carlton said of himself. “C.V. came out playing more aggressive, just helping to spark things in the second half.”
From there, Vital stole the show. After dishing an assist to Carlton, Vital got himself going with a 35-foot three-pointer. He came up with a steal on the ensuing defensive possession before nailing another three in the corner.
It was a breath of fresh air for the senior guard who picked up his first technical foul of the season before his first field goal.
“I think we just settled in, and we did that in the second half,” Vital said. “I think my teammates need to keep feeling confident.”
Vital dug deep into his bag of tricks when he nailed a James Harden-esque stepback three later in the half. Adams followed with a deep ball of his own to put the Huskies up 64-43.
The Pioneers never got their footing in the second half as they watched the Huskies take over. Sacred Heart was held to a 30% mark from the field and committed 25 turnovers to the taller, lengthier Huskies. Kinnon LaRose had a team-high 15 points and Jare’l Spellman set a career-best in rebounds with 15.
A 9-2 Sacred Heart run in the second half cut the lead to 11, but that was the closest the Pioneers would get.
Next time, the Huskies host St. Joseph’s at Gampel Pavilion with a 7 p.m. tip-off. UConn will look to be more consistent from start to finish as it looks to restore its identity, and it starts at the top.
“Our chance to change the cycle of the last couple of years is going to begin with that senior backcourt,” Hurley said. “We need that senior backcourt to be good to great most nights, from beginning to end.”