Fresh off Thanksgiving break, it looked like Dan Hurley’s bunch still had stomachs full of turkey and mashed potatoes in the first 20 minutes against Maine.
With a steady Alterique Gilbert leading the way, an explosive Brendan Adams and a lock-down defense in the second half, the UConn men’s basketball team pulled away for a 64-40 win over the Black Bears at the XL Center Sunday afternoon.
“That was the message the whole game, keep up that pressure defense,” Adams said. “I think the second half we just did a better job of that.”
Adams did not miss a beat from his impressive stretch of play down in Charleston as he finished with 11 points on 5-for-11 shooting and four steals off the bench. With Maine hanging around in an eight-point game, thanks in part to the debut of its zone defense, Adams put together a sequence that all but sealed the game. He followed a steal and a lay-in with a ferocious transition slam that brought the crowd of 7,000 plus to its feet. Another lay-up a minute later gave his team a then, game-high, 15-point advantage.
“With Brendan [Adams] showing us what he’s showing us and James [Bouknight] showing what he’s showing us … You go nine or 10 deep, now you can go and get after people,” Hurley said.
Adams and James Bouknight, who finished with 15 points and five rebounds, provided a needed spark off the bench in a game where the big men were neutralized. Josh Carlton, Akok Akok and Isaiah Whaley combined for five points and nine rebounds. Maine won the rebounding battle 34-29.
The offense lacked for most of the game as the Huskies (5-2) shot 37.9% from the floor and 30% from beyond the arc. It was 13 steals and a record 28 turnovers by the Black Bears, the most by a UConn opponent since Fairfield in 2000, that allowed the Huskies pull away.
“It starts on the defensive end,” said Gilbert, who finished 5-for-8 for 11 points with three assists. “Create opportunities for us, get out in transition, easy layups.”
UConn started the game with five Tyler Polley points via a 3-pointer and a pair of free throws. Gilbert followed with back-to-back made threes himself, giving UConn an 11-3 lead, but the Huskies were unable to keep the hot hand. Between forced long shots, an inability to work the ball inside and Maine’s Andrew Fleming (16 points, nine rebounds), the UConn offense went quiet.
UConn never trailed, but came close a couple of times, including a 0-for-12 shooting stretch that saw Maine bring the game within a point. Bouknight, the reigning AAC Freshman of the Week, had a tip-in off a missed shot to end the six-and-a-half-minute stretch.
A layup and a three-pointer from Adams, followed by a bucket from Maine’s Nedeljko Prijovic had UConn up 31-24 at the half.
“First half, we had a chance, a couple of plays offensively, defensively, where we could have really broke it open,” Hurley said. “And had a performance that we could feel a lot better about. I thought we were weak at the rim, finishing the ball, and because we made some threes early we let them off the hook by taking a couple of early-in-the-shot-clock, semi-contested perimeter shots. Against an opponent you have advantages on, athletically, you’re letting them off the hook.”
Christian Vital, who did not score in the opening half, scored a quick four points (finished with six points, five assists, four steals) following the intermission. A stretch of six-straight Maine points followed, making it a 35-30 game and forcing Hurley to take a timeout. References to the Nov. 22 loss to Xavier and a thrown chair were enough for the Huskies to lock in and lock down.
“A disappointing start to the half,” Hurley said. “It should have gone from seven to 14. Immaturity. We’re not there yet, we’ve got a lot to work to do to finish plays. These guys have to understand, you blow finishes at the rim against better teams, you lose. Against Xavier, we blew three point-blank finishes at the rim in a one-point, double-overtime loss. I reminded them of that.”
In a span of 10 minutes, UConn forced 10 turnovers on a 17-2 scoring run. Jalen Gaffney capped the stretch of play with his lone made shot of the afternoon off a midcourt miscue, giving UConn a 20-point lead with 11:29 to play. The lead never dipped below 17 from there on.
The Huskies have an opportunity for their sixth win of the year when Iona comes to Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday. Sid Wilson, who has been out with a knee injury he suffered in the win over Miami, will have his status re-evaluated ahead of the matchup.
With Sunday’s win in their pocket, Hurley knows there is still plenty of room for improvement with his Huskies.
“Game 7, Year 2: We’re not there yet. Got a lot of work to do.”