The last time the Huskies played Marquette on Jan. 5, they had to overcome an 18-point second half deficit to win. They didn’t need that type of comeback in Saturday’s 80-62 win, where they led comfortably throughout the final 30 minutes.
It was potentially the most complete performance from the UConn men’s basketball team (12-6, 9-6 Big East) this season from start to finish. UConn shot nearly 52% from the floor while holding Marquette (11-13, 6-11 Big East) to just 39% shooting. James Bouknight and R.J. Cole both had monster games, with Bouknight scoring 24 and Cole scoring 21. Everything seemed to be working for the Huskies.
“It was a pretty clean performance,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “When your backcourt gives you that and you guard, you’re pretty hard to beat.”
However, the team did have to deal with foul trouble on its frontcourt in the second half, which led to some pretty interesting lineup combinations. Adama Sanogo and Isaiah Whaley each picked up their fourth fouls early in the half and then Josh Carlton went down with an ankle injury. This put Hurley in a really tough spot. Despite the fact UConn was winning handily at the time, he knew that could have been a time where everything fell apart.
“That was a brutal time, that was not a good time,” Hurley said. “We had lineups in the game that had never played positions and that were trying to run actions that we run. But we scored enough. I think the closest [Marquette] got it was maybe 12. During that stretch, if they would’ve cut it to single digits, things could have gotten really messy. But we survived long enough so we could get Adama back on the court and stabilize things.”
Cole and Bouknight really had to bear the weight during that stretch and score on nearly every UConn possession, which they did. This was only the second game all season where UConn had two different players score 20 points. The first came back on Dec. 30 against DePaul, when Tyrese Martin and Bouknight each did it.
The relationship between Bouknight and Cole has grown throughout the season, and now they are playing as good of basketball as any backcourt in the Big East — and in Bouknight’s opinion, the best in the Big East.
“When we see something on the court, when one of us is not going hard or trying to take plays off to get some air, we have the relationship where we can talk to each other, and we can get each other to tighten up,” Bouknight said. “Today we played really well together, and we just hope we can keep this up. I believe that we’re the best backcourt in the Big East and one of the best in the country, without a doubt.”
Bouknight and Cole may have combined for 45 out of UConn’s 80 points, but other guys also played really well. Tyler Polley got out of his shooting funk and knocked down a few threes; Andre Jackson had his best game of his young career with eight points, eight rebounds and some really disruptive defense; and Martin, before he got into foul trouble, played a key role on the glass.
Now the key for the Huskies is making this type of performance a regular thing. Hurley says the strength of this team is its depth, and that’s true. But getting consistent production from your top players is key, especially as we get into March. Bouknight is good for at least 20 points every game it seems, but consistently getting another guy to score close to that level would transform this team into a title contender. Cole could be that guy.
“We saw this a lot at practice last year, we saw this a lot at Howard,” Hurley said. “He’s found his rhythm and timing at an important time.”
It’s certainly an important time for all college basketball teams as the calendar flips to March, but especially one like UConn who is trying to prove its worthiness for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Look for the Huskies to maintain this “kill or be killed” mindset that Bouknight noted for the rest of the campaign.
Next up is Seton Hall on Wednesday in what is a crucial game for both teams. UConn has a chance to play itself off the bubble with a big win over the Pirates on the road, while Seton Hall needs the win to remain on the bubble.
“They’re gonna be desperate, we’re gonna be desperate. I know that,” Hurley said.
Well, if the Huskies play at the level they did against Marquette, there should be no doubt that they are a tournament team, and a very good one at that.