MBB: Huskies hang on for gritty win over USC in Bubbleville

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Dec 3, 2020; Uncasville, CT, USA; Connecticut Huskies guard James Bouknight (2) and guard R.J. Cole (1) reacts after defeating the USC Trojans at Mohegan Sun Arena. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

The UConn men’s basketball team scored just eight points in the final 14 minutes and didn’t score at all in the last four. But the Huskies were still able to hold on for a tough and ugly 61-58 win over USC at Mohegan Sun Arena on Thursday night. 

At the 14:23 mark of the second half, Isaiah Whaley put back a second-chance dunk to put the Huskies (3-0) up by 13 points, and the way the offense was rolling at that point, it seemed like they might pull away. However, the shots stopped falling, and they only hit two more shots the rest of the way. Head coach Dan Hurley said the zone defense USC (3-1) was playing really affected the team’s ability to find good shots. 

“We’re a serious work in progress offensively,” Hurley said. “Seeing a zone of that length today caused us a lot of problems.” 

However, UConn was still able to find a way to win because of its own smothering defense that allowed the Trojans to score just three points in those final four minutes. The Huskies also outrebounded USC 42-31, a huge and impressive feat against a team whose two top players, brothers Evan and Isaiah Mobley, both came into the game averaging over nine boards per game. 

“Until we’re more comfortable offensively, you’ve gotta win with your defense,” Hurley said. “You’ve gotta win with your toughness and your grit and your togetherness. And to go plus-11 on the backboard vs. a team with that type of size across the board just showed how tough we were today.” 

It was a product of a tough week of practice that Hurley touted as a “cauldron of intensity” on Wednesday after two less-than-ideal performances against Central Connecticut and Hartford last week.  

Dec 3, 2020; Uncasville, CT, USA; Connecticut Huskies guard James Bouknight (2) and forward Josh Carlton (25) work for the ball against USC Trojans guard Drew Peterson (13) in the second half at Mohegan Sun Arena. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

“Our coach, he makes sure practice is like chaos, so that when the game comes, we’re able to handle whatever comes to us,” James Bouknight said after the game. “This week was a tough week in practice, but it paid off.” 

Bouknight led all scorers with 18 points and also grabbed seven rebounds. He scored the team’s first nine points by hitting three quick 3-pointers, and he also scored what ended up being the deciding basket with an and-one on a tough layup through contact. 

Josh Carlton also had a big game for UConn after playing very little in the team’s first two games. He scored nine points off the bench and led the team with 11 rebounds, six of them on the offensive end, including a huge one in the final minute that allowed UConn to keep possession and run more clock. 

“I thought Josh played with the type of desperation that older players just play with when they’re seniors,” Hurley said. “He looked like a senior that understands how important every possession is, how important every game is.” 

Other key players included Whaley, who put up 10 points, five rebounds and five blocks. He also did a really nice job guarding Evan Mobley, a potential lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft. Mobley still led USC with 17 points, but nine of those came at the free-throw line. 

Tyrese Martin also had a nice game with 11 points, six rebounds and an acrobatic layup that might be the highlight of the year so far for UConn. 

The Huskies shot the ball well from deep early before going cold, and they finished with seven 3-pointers compared to just three for USC, which was a major deciding factor. 

“We shot 3-for-19 [from three], so that was really the difference in the game,” USC head coach Andy Enfield said. “We had some wide open looks … We missed like four open threes. Games come down sometimes to made and missed shots.” 

It wasn’t an efficient game for UConn by any stretch, especially in the second half, when they shot just 27% from the floor. But the Huskies played great team defense when it mattered most and they held on to win a one-possession game, something that didn’t happen too often just a year ago. 

“To get a quality non-conference win on a neutral site … is a really good win for us,” Hurley said. “And the way we did it I thought was important. I thought that game reminded me of the way we lost to Xavier or Indiana last year in the non-conference.” 

The Huskies are on an eight-game winning streak dating back to last season. But next up is another quality opponent in NC State, who is also 3-0 after a win on Thursday. The Wolfpack beat UMass Lowell 90-59 behind 18 points from their leading scorer Devon Daniels. The Huskies will have to be ready for battle against another top 50 KenPom team on Saturday at noon. The game will be broadcast on ESPNU. 

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