It was far from a complete performance by the UConn men’s basketball team Wednesday night, but the Huskies were able to scrape out an 80-62 win over Iona, thanks in large part to dominant runs to open both halves from the starting five.
“I was thrilled with the way the starters started the game, and then the way they started the second half,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Today was an example that, if we didn’t have quality older players … without Christian, Al, Tyler’s start to the second half, we would’ve lost.”
After a string of rough performances, it was a redemption night for Alterique Gilbert and Josh Carlton, each posting double-doubles and commanding the Huskies’ offense. Carlton had 19 hard-earned points and 12 boards, while Gilbert finished with 12 points and a season-high 10 assists, all while committing just a single turnover.
“In the early part of the season, I didn’t do a very good job of coaching him at that position,” Hurley said, accepting blame for Gilbert’s difficult start to the season. “I love where it’s going with him, he’s so focused on his leadership and making those around him better. It looks like he’s really starting to understand the position.”
Senior Christian Vital came a rebound short of a double-double, scoring 12 of his 16 points in the first half. Tyler Polley provided the second-half spark, drilling three shots from beyond the arc and scoring 12 of his 14 after the break.
On one hand, it was certainly encouraging to see the starters absolutely dominate for stretches of the game. On the other hand, for a team that prides itself on depth, it was concerning to see how stagnant the second unit looked. With the exception of Brendan Adams, every bench player had a negative plus-minus — an unsightly metric given the 18-point positive differential for the team.
“With the older guys having a year under Coach, we understand more the expectation, the way he wants us to play, and we’ve embraced it. JC had a monster game, Ty woke up in the second half, our point guard had a 10:1 turnover ratio tonight, Akok was extremely important on the defensive end,” Vital said. “The young guys didn’t have their best day today, but it’s a long season and they’re definitely gonna get it when we need them to.”
The Huskies (6-2) did something they’ve rarely done this season: Come out of the gates firing. Led by a lightning-fast seven points from Vital, UConn jumped out to an 11-2 lead. A 7-0 run shortly after, sparked by a quick four off the bench from Isaiah Whaley, made it 22-11. It looked like Hurley would have one of his first comfortable wins of the season.
Then the second unit checked in, and the final result got murkier. The Gaels (2-3) answered with a 12-0 run of their own to take a 23-22 lead, and it remained back-and-forth for the rest of the half, with UConn clinging to a one-point lead at the buzzer. Carlton and Vital had 25 of the team’s 36 first half points, though the Huskies simply couldn’t defend the Gael’s drives. Iona seemed determined to attack the rim on every possession, and UConn had no answer.
“I think we got off to a good start, and then we took our foot off the gas,” Gilbert said after the game. “We allowed them to get back into the game, make some plays. But in the second half, we pulled away.”
Pulled away the Huskies did, scoring the first 11 points of the second half, including consecutive 3-point bombs from Polley. More importantly, the defense finally locked in, clamping down on drives into the paint. All-in-all, it was an explosive 22-4 run to begin the second, and the UConn lead grew to as large as 22 points. Carlton was simply unstoppable down low, at one point drawing four-straight and-ones.
“That’s what we’re gonna need from him, not necessarily 19, 12 and four [blocks], but the force he played with — he was a man out there,” Hurley said on Carlton. “Josh is really good, and he’s been in a bit of a funk. A lot of times when a good player is struggling, it’s mental. I just wanted him to believe in himself.”
After one of those Carlton and-ones, Hurley was fired up on the sideline, gesturing wildly at Carlton to hype up the crowd. Carlton, a far less visibly emotional presence than his head coach, didn’t do as much as Hurley would’ve liked, so Hurley did it for him.
“I just wanted Josh to go, like, psycho beast mode out there,” Hurley joked after the game. “I wanted emotion, I wanted him staring into the student section, I wanted him to bring the crowd to its feet, I wanted him to show that he was all man and a beast. He didn’t do it, I did.”
The Gaels would cut the lead to 10 late in the second half as the bench once again came in and struggled to maintain the energy and chemistry of the starters, but that’s as close as it would get. With the win, the Huskies improve to 6-2 overall, and 4-1 at home this season, having yet to play a true road game thus far.
Now Hurley and company set their sights on New York City, traveling to Madison Square Garden to take on undefeated Indiana (8-0) on Tuesday. Last season, the Huskies went 1-1 at the Garden, defeating Syracuse in an unforgettable battle but following that with a dud against Iowa the next day. If Wednesday’s win over Iona is any indication, this year’s veterans are hungry for another victory in the Big Apple.