Coming into Saturday’s game against Xavier, the UConn men’s basketball team had lost four of its last five games. It was coming off one of its worst games of the season against Providence and its place in the NCAA Tournament was in jeopardy.
Simply put, the Huskies (9-5, 6-5 Big East) needed a win.
They got one, defeating Xavier (11-3, 4-3 Big East) 80-72 in their best performance without James Bouknight and one of their better performances all season. The players knew they needed to regroup after the Providence game, so there was a meeting Thursday night where they got to talk and establish what needed to be done to have more success moving forward.
“During the team meeting, we were all just trying to make sure we established roles and make sure everybody knew what their role on the team was,” senior forward Isaiah Whaley said after the game. “Basically, we were telling ourselves if we wanted to start making a run at it, this was going to be the game. It was time.”
UConn showed that on the court, playing with a sense of urgency that we haven’t seen much from this team recently, especially on the offensive end. They were shooting earlier in the shot clock, grabbing offensive rebounds and getting everyone on the court involved.
Point guard R.J. Cole had his best game in a UConn uniform, leading the team with 24 points, seven assists, four rebounds and two steals. He also found his 3-point stroke, shooting 5-for-7 from beyond the arc. He lost his spot in the starting lineup a couple of games ago, and he responded in a big way.
“[Coach Dan Hurley] has been pushing me a lot lately,” Cole said. “The last couple of days, he’s been really at me to get me to this point. At halftime, he just pulled me aside, and that really helped me. Coach has really been supporting me, and it’s kind of pushed another gear for me. It helped me today.”
But it wasn’t just Cole. The team got down early once again, 14-5 out of the gate, and it took a whole team effort to get them out of that hole. Whaley and Tyrese Martin both had great games, and neither one was 100% healthy as both suffered ankle injuries in practice.
“Man, what soldiers,” Hurley said of their performances. “That’s what you’re supposed to do as an athlete. You’re supposed to sacrifice for your team … That’s what warriors do. They get out there and give you what they got.”
Whaley recorded his third double-double of the season with 12 points and 10 rebounds. He also added four assists and was a force on the defensive end with five blocks. Martin, meanwhile, had 15 points and nine rebounds, and he had one of the biggest plays in the game.
After Xavier had just gone on a 9-0 run to tie the game up at 49, the Huskies hadn’t scored in over three minutes and were in danger of falling apart. On the next possession, Martin grabbed an offensive rebound off a miss by Tyler Polley, put it back up and got fouled. He hit the free throw, and from there, the Huskies found their rhythm on offense again.
As far as offensive rhythm goes, this was the best UConn has looked without Bouknight. Hurley has said consistently that without him, they need to keep the score under 70 to win, and up until Saturday, he was right. But the Huskies were able to score 80 points on a good Xavier team, and the answer why was simple.
“We made shots, and the ball was moving,” Hurley said. “We just had a better flow … When you’re making shots, you tend to go faster and shoot earlier in the clock. When no one’s making shots, it starts to turn into a rock fight. We had a good pace today.”
Zach Freemantle had a monster game for Xavier, scoring 30 points and grabbing 15 boards, but UConn did a good job of containing everyone else, including Paul Scruggs, one of the team’s senior captains and top scorers. He had just nine points on 3-of-10 shooting.
An important footnote from this game was that Akok Akok returned and got his first productive minutes of the season. He came off the bench early when the team was down and provided an immediate spark, knocking down his first three shots for seven big points. He was smiling nearly the entire time he was on the court, just happy to be out there helping his team again.
“That was really big for us, for the whole team and for me too,” Whaley said about having Akok out there. “Seeing him, it was a joy to see, especially because we all know how hard he worked to get out there.”
Next up for the Huskies is another date with the Providence Friars on Tuesday, this time at home. UConn will look to use the momentum from this win to make sure this next game against Providence goes better than last week’s.