About 10 months ago, the Huskies got a commitment from Adama Sanogo, who was leaning towards Seton Hall before UConn head coach Dan Hurley and his staff flipped him.
Now, Sanogo is playing a key role in clinching the No. 3 seed in the Big East Tournament for the Huskies on Seton Hall’s court with a 69-58 victory.
“Obviously Adama was phenomenal. For a freshman, in this spot, to show up like that,” Hurley said.
The freshman, who went to school in Seton Hall’s backyard, seemed like he could do pretty much whatever he wanted Wednesday night against the Pirates. Sanogo finished the game with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, nine rebounds, two blocks, one steal and only one turnover.
The craziest part of Sanogo’s performance? He didn’t even have the best game out of UConn’s big men. That title goes to senior Isaiah Whaley.
Whaley finished the game with a team-high 17 points on 8-of-14 shooting, an offensive explosion for anyone, but even more so for him. The lockdown defender and premier shot-blocker also had a great game on the boards, pulling down 10 rebounds, five of which offensive, and blocking a pair of shots.
“Isaiah was obviously MVP of the game,” Hurley said. “Just making things so hard for [Seton Hall’s senior forward Sandro Mamukelashvili], making him earn those numbers, and then obviously 17-and-10 with that defense.”
Mamukelashvili finished with a game-high 20 points, but did so on just 7-of-20 shooting, missing nearly twice as many shots as he made.
The Huskies got out to an incredibly rough start to the game, not scoring for over three minutes until R.J. Cole hit a pair of technical free throws. It was another minute until Sanogo made the first field goal of the game for UConn, and after Seton Hall hit a quick three on the ensuing possession, the Huskies found themselves in a quick 13-4 hole.
It took nearly eight minutes of game time for UConn to get its first non-Sanogo field goal, with the big man pretty much singlehandedly keeping the Huskies close in the first minutes.
UConn started chipping away at the lead, with the deficit yoyoing between one and seven points for much of the first half. With seconds remaining, Whaley cleaned up a James Bouknight blocked shot and put UConn up one going into the break. Whaley’s bucket, along with a pair of triples from Cole and Bouknight, capped off an 8-0 run to close the half.
“I thought we responded great,” Hurley said. “We knew they would start quick. They really punched us in the mouth, but we were able to stabilize.”
The run continued into the second half, with UConn scoring six more unanswered points before Seton Hall finally managed to sink a shot just over two minutes in. It was pretty much all UConn from there on out, with the lead growing as big as 13. Seton Hall made it somewhat interesting, pulling within seven points with a minute left in the half, but never really got within striking distance.
UConn played well towards the end of the first half but the second half was really where they won the game, outscoring the Pirates 42-32. The Huskies got a really good half from Cole, who scored nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, including the team’s only made three of the half. The junior point guard finished the game with 14 points, his twelfth game in a row in double-digits.
Bouknight had an alright game, and while he was by no means at his sharpest — shooting only 4-for-13 from the field — a 7-for-8 day at the charity stripe still got him to 16 points on the day.
Even Tyrese Martin, who didn’t score a single point, was productive in other ways, pulling down six boards and leading the team with two steals.
With this win, the Huskies clinched the No. 3 seed in the Big East tournament, but it also all but guaranteed their spot in the NCAA Tournament. UConn didn’t make March Madness during the 2015-16 season, and hasn’t really come close for a couple of years.
“We even talked about it as a staff, looking where we were that March/April that we came in, being I think a 179 or 180 KenPom,” Hurley said. “You look at the different programs that we were sandwiched between taking over the job, and now in year 3, going up in weight and having a chance to go potentially 11-6 if we win on Saturday. We recruited the right guys, we’ve developed them, we’ve built a culture. The players that we’ve inherited have helped us build that culture.”
After Wednesday’s game, UConn is No. 25 in the KenPom rankings.
The Huskies have one more game left in the regular season where they will host Georgetown. After that, it’s on to trying for a Big East tournament championship.