After 20 months of waiting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the University of Connecticut men’s basketball team finally got to play in front of a home crowd on Tuesday night in a season-opener against Central Connecticut.
And they certainly didn’t disappoint.
The Huskies put on a dominant display for the near-max capacity Gampel Pavilion in a 99-48 rout of the Blue Devils.
The opening day lineup for UConn was composed of all returners: graduate students Isaiah Whaley and RJ Cole, senior Tyrese Martin and sophomores Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson.
The first half went exactly according to plan, as UConn was quick to put the game away. They hit every shot they took over the first six and a half minutes, highlighted by eight points in the paint from big man Sanogo. Over that span, the Huskies forced an astounding six turnovers. While the scorching hot stretch had to come to an end at some point, total domination continued and by the end of the half, the team would lead 52-23.
The second half was much of the same, with UConn never lowering the intensity level despite the massive lead. While Sanogo continued his stellar play, Whaley had himself a nice half, going a perfect 3-for-3 from the floor and tacking on two rebounds and an assist to his statline.
“I think we’re a very talented team, we [the team] all know that. It’s just a matter of us playing to our identity every day and making sure we come out with the necessary toughness that we have, and everything else will fall in place,” Cole said in his postgame interview.
The team’s top scorer of the night was Sanogo, who had himself a feast down low, scoring 20 points and grabbing five rebounds on a ridiculous 45 plus/minus. He also provided the quote of the night when describing his ability to score seemingly at will against a smaller CCSU frontcourt, saying “It’s tough to guard me, so basically I score whenever I want.”
Sanogo wasn’t the only one capitalizing in the paint, with the team scoring 58 points down low out of their 99 overall.
Martin quietly had a great night, attacking the basket for 14 points and two rebounds. Cole was impressive in this one as well, going 5-for-6 for 15 points alongside three assists and three rebounds. Jackson was awesome in what looks to be the start of a breakout season for him, scoring nine alongside six rebounds and three assists. He looked solid on defense as well, much improved from his struggles last year, adding three steals and a flashy block. Jackson’s seemingly only flaw in this one was the turnovers, as he led the team with four.
Junior Akok Akok entered the game early to plenty of applause, as the big man looks to be fully healthy for the first time since his breakout 2019 campaign. In this one, he grabbed a team-high seven rebounds and added eight points, knocking down one three-pointer. He also had a major impact on the opposite end of the court.
The freshmen understandably got limited minutes in this one, with Samson Johnson, Rahsool Diggins and Richie Springs all getting between six and 10 minutes of play. They looked lost at times, combining for four points on seven shots, but they should look to develop over the coming games. As of right now, the Huskies seem to have the luxury of depth, not really needing to throw these new guys into the fire right away. Instead, they should have plenty of time to develop off the bench, learning from the veterans.
The defense put on a clinic against Central, forcing 29 turnovers, including 16 in the first half. The crowd saw the first three of many Akok blocks this year, as well as Big East Co-Defensive Player of the Year Isaiah Whaley in full form, highlighted by a mean block that sent a driving CCSU player to the ground. Eight different Huskies got at least one steal on Tuesday, with both Jackson and Jalen Gaffney leading the team with three. One turnover should even be credited to the student section, as they intentionally counted down late so the Blue Devils didn’t realize the shot clock was low.
The Huskies were aggressive on both ends of the court in this one, which led to some foul trouble for a few players. Gaffney had a team high of four, while Sanogo and Johnson each had three on the night. Coach Dan Hurley was able to rotate them in and out with ease due to the massive lead, but it will be interesting to see how the team will deal with fouls in closer games.
Hurley was quick to praise his team’s intensity and depth postgame, noting that this team has a lot of returners that played in significant games and says they look to “hit the ground running.” When talking about the Gampel atmosphere on Tuesday night, he made sure to bring up the impact of the students.
“When you have a student section like that on opening night, it’s hard not to get out there and perform at a high level. That was so exciting to see that kind of student attendance for the opener. We have unbelievable student fans here,” Hurley noted.
Up next for UConn is a matchup against Coppin State on Saturday, held at the XL Center.