It wasn’t a pretty game to watch, but at the final buzzer, the UConn men’s basketball team had escaped with a 60-53 win over DePaul, thanks in large part to its relentless defense down the stretch.
The No. 25 ranked Huskies (7-1, 4-1 Big East), who earlier in the day made their first appearance in the AP poll since 2016, proved they belonged there by holding DePaul (1-4, 0-4 Big East) scoreless for the final 4.5 minutes as they scored the game’s last eight points to secure the win.
“Thrilled to get the win there, just to be able to kind of grind out a road game ,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “We won that just with toughness and the guys showing real grit and heart.”
The Huskies were playing without their top scorer James Bouknight for the second consecutive game, and his absence seemed to be felt more in this game than against Butler on Saturday, but Tyrese Martin and R.J. Cole made enough plays in Bouknight’s absence to allow the team to survive and advance in Chicago.
“I just think that speaks to our togetherness and our accountability for each other,” Cole said. “When one man goes down, that means the next man steps up, and that’s how we’ve been playing … Just because our best player goes out, we can’t sit around and sulk. We all got to just pick up that slack and keep moving because that’s how we are, like a pack of wolves.”
Martin led UConn with 18 points on 7-of-14 shooting, and he hit a couple of huge baskets down the stretch when his team really needed them. He said the team’s success so far this season has really stemmed from how hard they practice.
“We just practice like maniacs every day,” Martin said. “No one in the country practices like us. So actually, some of the games — it looks crazy — but the games feel easier than practice.”
Cole also had a solid game with 12 points and four assists, and he hit a huge corner three with five minutes left to snap a scoring drought for the Huskies. That shot really ignited the final stretch for UConn when they put the game away.
“I think it was a pretty big moment in the game,” Cole said about the shot. “I’m just happy that I was there for my teammates in that moment.”
After the game, Hurley praised Cole’s defensive efforts as well, not just in this game, but over the whole road trip.
“In these Big East games, he’s been fantastic on the other team’s point guard,” Hurley said. “He’s very slick and he’s very crafty.”
Reigning Big East Player of the Week Tyler Polley didn’t quite have the same success shooting the ball as he did in the past two games, but he still managed to finish in double figures with 12 points.
The Huskies didn’t play great basketball for much of the game. They shot only 54% from the free throw line, they turned the ball over 14 times and they were even outrebounded despite coming in as the top team in the conference in rebound percentage. However, they won this game on the defensive end by forcing 24 DePaul turnovers, six in that final 4.5 minute stretch. UConn found a way to win on a night where they didn’t play even close to their best, and that is the sign of a great team.
“There were so many plays that said this wasn’t going to be our night, but this group is tough and we found a way,” Hurley said.
The team dedicated this win to Dee Rowe, the legendary UConn basketball coach and longtime ambassador for UConn athletics who passed away Sunday at the age of 91.
“It was as simple as, we’ve got to find a way. It’s going to be difficult to win your third game in a row on the road, but let’s dig down,” Hurley said. “And what great programs do is they find a way to win a game like [tonight] and then they dedicate that and they honor Coach Rowe and his family and everything he’s meant to UConn.”
After being stuck in Storrs for a while, the team got to play three midwest road games within a week and picked up three big conference wins — two of them without their best player. Now their next game isn’t scheduled until next Monday against St. John’s with the postponement of the Villanova game on Friday.
Hurley said the rest will be important for a team that was clearly gassed Monday night, and he said it will give the team a chance to prepare to play without Bouknight again if they need to, although he said he doesn’t expect Bouknight to miss much more time with his elbow.
Overall, the program is in a really good spot right now. They’re on a four game winning streak, they’re ranked for the first time in nearly five seasons and they’re finding different ways to win in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball, even without their star player.
“Once you get over that hump that you go through during a rebuild where it’s just brutality the first year or two … and you develop a winner’s mindset, that landed on us last year,” Hurley said. “And now it’s in the bones of our program.”