Men’s Basketball: Huskies take down Red Storm in OT Thriller

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After a hard-fought battle in which UConn led most of the game, the Huskies found themselves up by just two points with 14 seconds in regulation. Big East rival St. John’s had possession of the ball, and the Red Storm ran the best play they could: Get the ball to All-Big East First Teamer Julian Champagnie and let the magic happen.

Splash. Just like that, UConn was trailing for the first time since a little over 11 minutes into the game, now with only five seconds on the clock. Head coach Dan Hurley calls a quick timeout, leaving the Huskies on their own end of the court. A lucky inbound pass that was tipped by a Red Storm player might have been the best-case scenario for UConn, which now had it on the other end with four seconds to play.

The new play Hurley drew up seemed to be for guard Tyrese Martin, who took the ball and missed a two-point jumper. Thankfully for the Huskies, there was enough time for big man Adama Sanogo to snatch the board and go back up, getting fouled in the process. He made one of two shots, forcing a fourth overtime period for Connecticut this year.

Carrying the momentum fueled by the crowd of over 6,600 people at Gampel Pavilion, the Huskies were able to take care of business in overtime, taking home a conference win over St. John’s by a score of 86-78. In that overtime stretch, the offense was prolific, hitting 4-of-5 shots and going 7-for-7 from the charity stripe.

“That was a tough shot. But once we got the opportunity to force the overtime, I knew from there it was just up, five minutes of us giving us a chance to come and win a game. [In an overtime position] I have the utmost confidence in us every time. I’m just happy we were able to close it out and win the game,” guard RJ Cole said postgame.

The player of the game was clearly Sanogo, whose team-high 26 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks were all part of a monster night for the sophomore. He was seemingly everywhere on the court tonight, shooting an efficient 10-for-17 from the floor while keeping the Red Storm’s small ball lineup out of the paint.

“He’s a great player, I’ve always liked his game,” St. John’s head coach Mike Anderson explained. “I thought we did a decent job [containing him], and then I look at the statline, and he went crazy.”

Sanogo has been terrific since his return from an abdominal injury. He was limited in his comeback game against Marquette, but now has a combined 44 points and 34 rebounds alongside nine blocks in his last two games. Hurley said postgame that Sanogo was unable to do most physical activities while recovering. The forward was only able to practice one time before the Marquette game. He’s certainly looking fully healthy now.

“I’m happy to be able to play 40 minutes. The last couple weeks were not easy, not being able to practice, not being able to work hard, just watching practice,” Sanogo said in his presser. “To be able to play 40 minutes right away, it feels great.”

And the team is certainly benefiting from his presence on the court. In the last two games, the team is shooting over 51% from 3, a massive step up from the under-28% shooting in his four-game absence.

“When he doesn’t play, it sucks for us. The guy is a monster. His presence affects our three-point shooting too,” Hurley said. “At the offensive end, we shoot the ball better when he plays because we get better looks at threes because teams are very concerned with guarding him. Today we went 9-for-22 from three, and that is not a coincidence.”

While Sanogo had an All-Big East-caliber game, so did Champagnie, who finished the day with a game-high 27 points alongside five rebounds, two assists and two steals. His go-ahead shot could very well have been the clincher if not for UConn’s run down the court in the last few seconds.

“The size, the shooting, the handle, the ability to get his own shot, he’s surrounded by some really good players too,” said Hurley on Champagnie’s strengths. “He looks the part of a draft pick.”

The Red Storm saw an off night from reigning Big East Freshman and Defensive Player of the Year Posh Alexander, who went just 4-for-13 from the floor for 11 points and 10 rebounds alongside four turnovers. The sophomore guard had a -14 plus/minus, a game-low for anyone that played over 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, sophomore guard Andre Jackson had another great night for the Huskies, shooting 3-for-5 for 11 points and five rebounds. He had a game-high +12 plus/minus. While turning over the ball four times, he also provided a big spark late in the first half with a highlight dunk. As of late, Jackson has shown tremendous improvement in his drives to the basket.

On Wednesday night in overtime, the guard had an opportunity to drive to the rim, and it looked as though he was going to dunk it despite there being traffic in the paint. In the past, he’s gone up and gotten rejected either by the opponent or the rim. Instead, he took the free points, finishing the layup and putting the nail in the coffin on the game. It’s those higher-percentage, higher basketball IQ takes that are making Jackson a more polished player.

There was a major difference in the foul calls in this one, with UConn only committing 13 fouls to the Red Storm’s 26. Some of this had to do with Cole’s play on defense, drawing a few offensive fouls throughout the game. The Huskies did a great job staying out of foul trouble, despite their starters playing the majority of the game. St. John’s, however, had three different players foul out of the game.

One thing of note in the game was the lack of playing time for the freshmen, with Jordan Hawkins the only first-year getting minutes. Hurley addressed this in a press conference earlier in the week, citing the lack of results from Rahsool Diggins, Samson Johnson and Richie Springs in practice.

Hawkins, a budding star who was receiving significant minutes amidst injuries at one point this year, has been cold lately. He finished with three points on 1-for-5 shooting, two rebounds and two turnovers on Wednesday night. Unless Hawkins starts hitting shots like sharpshooter Tyler Polley (3-for-4, nine points), expect his role to remain diminished.

For the time being, it looks like this starting five of Sanogo, Martin, Jackson, Cole and Isaiah Whaley will hold the majority of the minutes moving forward. The fivesome is now 7-0 when they all start together, and justifiably so. The Huskies have a lot of talent on the court at any given time, but at some point they will need to rely upon their bench again.

A strong game from Polley is a good sign, but guys like Akok and Gaffney need to do well enough to give guys like Whaley, Sanogo and Cole a few breaks on the bench. With their next game against Providence recently postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the PC program, the Huskies will certainly have homework, with working on productivity from the bench atop the list.

One other major flaw for the Huskies on Wednesday was the inconsistency on defense. The team combined for 14 blocks and were able to contest a few shots, including Champagnie’s go-ahead bucket, but also found themselves lost on more than a couple defensive possessions. Too many times were they leaving guys open on the perimeter, allowing the Red Storm to stay in the game.

Allowing offensive rebounds was another big issue. St. John’s racked up a crazy 21 offensive boards, earning 20 second-chance points in the process. That simply cannot happen, especially with the size difference favoring UConn.

Regardless, the major takeaway is that the Huskies were able to walk away with another Big East win, gaining more close game experience in the process. There’s still a lot of work to do with this team, but the team’s identity is taking shape.

UConn has a small break ahead of them now that the Providence game is canceled, taking on Butler next week at the XL Center. Tip-off is on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on FS1.

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