It wasn’t pretty, but the No. 24 UConn Huskies were able to salvage something from their weekend road trip, taking down St. John’s 63-60 on Sunday after falling to No. 25 Xavier 74-68 on Friday.
The first game of the weekend started out easily enough, as the Huskies were able to compete in an exciting, back-and-forth affair. A dagger three by Musketeer Nate Johnson at the halftime buzzer gave Xavier a three-point lead and a lot of momentum heading into the break. Surrounded by a crowd of over 10,000 fans, the Musketeers took their lead and increased it to 10 by the 13-minute mark of the second half. This deficit would prove to be too much for the Huskies, who never reclaimed the lead.
Xavier had a very successful game offensively, thanks to forwards Zach Freemantle and Jack Nunge. The Huskies had no answers for this big man duo, as they were able to combine for 34 points on 11-for-20 shooting and grab 18 rebounds. On the night, Xavier shot a very efficient 49% from the field, including 60% in the second half. The Musketeers were able to avoid real foul trouble, so the starters all were able to play at least 30 minutes of game time.
On the other end, UConn was not able to keep its fouls in check. While Xavier limited themselves to 15 fouls, the Huskies forced a whistle a whopping 23 times. RJ Cole and Adama Sanogo both finished the game with four fouls, and Andre Jackson fouled out late in the second half.
The Huskies certainly had their opportunities to win the game, but were hindered by a couple technical fouls down the stretch. The first came thanks to head coach Dan Hurley, who argued against a reach-in foul call on Tyrese Martin that appeared to be just a tipped ball. Hurley went so far as to explain his thought process, defending his stance that it was a bad call postgame. Thankfully for the Huskies, Xavier only scored two points directly from that play, and they were able to get within three points of the Musketeers with 90 seconds to go.
On UConn’s next offensive possession, Martin drove down the lane with hopes of putting the game within one. Jackson tipped the ball out of bounds, and in frustration spiked the basketball – an automatic technical. This fouled him out, and the subsequent three points from the technical all but put the game away.
Going into the second game, the Huskies needed to improve their defense and win on the road, all a day-and-a-half removed from their tough loss. Playing at Madison Square Garden in New York was a short enough trip for plenty of UConn fans, who may not have had the numbers advantage over St. John’s, but still made themselves heard throughout the contest. An unfortunate scratch for the Red Storm was Big East Freshman of the Year Posh Alexander, who missed his second straight matchup due to a hip injury.
In the last clash between these two Big East teams, Alexander had a rough night, but was still able to take plenty of pressure away from all-conference talent Julian Champagnie, who put up 27 points back in January. This time around, UConn was able to focus more of their efforts on Champagnie, and the junior dropped 13 points on just 6-for-16 shooting.
The defense played well overall, allowing a shooting percentage of just 34% to the Johnnies, but 15 turnovers and 36% shooting of their own kept the Huskies in a close contest the whole way. It was a rather ugly performance from both teams, and as the game came to a close it appeared evident that the team that made the fewest mistakes would come out on top. This time, it was UConn that took control down the stretch.
“[I’m] thrilled to get an opportunity to get the win,” Hurley said postgame. “Obviously, it was a wild game at times… [I’m] really proud of the guys [and how they] found a way to win with their defense today.”
“[i’m] thrilled to get an opportunity to get the win. obviously, it was a wild game at times… [i’m] really proud of the guys [and how they] found a way to win with their defense today.”Dan Hurley
The star of Sunday’s matchup was Martin, who caught fire in the second half from beyond the arc. He finished with a game-high 17 points and four three-pointers alongside eight rebounds. His second-half performance was just enough to put the Huskies on top.
The most consistent guy on the court all game had to be big man Isaiah Whaley, who finished the afternoon with 5-for-6 shooting, seven rebounds, five blocks and two steals. He’s never been the top scoring option, but his all-around talents on the court really are what makes him a top “glue guy” in the conference.
Sophomore star Adama Sanogo had a rough day, as he finished the game with just eight points on 4-for-13 shooting. Sanogo started out on fire, scoring the team’s first six points, but then all but disappeared for the rest of the game. He only played 22 minutes, but an all-conference caliber player should not see almost 100 points scored in a row with none to his name. His fourth and final bucket was a key one, putting the Huskies up four with two minutes remaining. He also had a crucial block with under a minute to go, but ideally, the team would expect more consistency from Sanogo.
Speaking of inconsistency, the UConn bench had another lackluster performance, with the trio of Tyler Polley, Jordan Hawkins and Jalen Gaffney combining for just eight points on 3-for-18 shooting. Typically, Sanogo and the bench’s shooting successes go hand-in-hand, but at some point, the two veterans and the rookie have to figure it out.
The good news for the Huskies? They picked up another conference road win, and now hope to ride some momentum into a key home stretch against top-50 teams in Seton Hall, Xavier and Villanova. They sit comfortably in an NCAA tournament spot and are projected as a No. 6 seed, according to teamrankings.com. With some key games up ahead, there’s plenty of room for them to increase their standings and build some momentum for the Big East Tournament in mid-March.
UConn next plays on Wednesday night at Gampel Pavilion against Seton Hall University. Tipoff is set for 8:30 p.m., and the game will be broadcast live on CBSSN.