Men’s Basketball: Boards, blunders and Bouknight highlight win over Xavier

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No amount of Adam Kunkle threes, turnovers or even James Bouknight antics could stop the UConn men’s basketball team from taking down the Xavier Musketeers on Saturday, as they won in convincing fashion, 72-61.  

While the first half was very back-and-forth to start, the Huskies exploded to end the period, completely dominating on both ends of the court. The score was 26-23 with just over five minutes to play in the half, but going into the break, the Huskies were leading 44-27 thanks to a crazy 18-4 run.  

“They’re big, they’re strong, they’re athletic, they’re physical,” Xavier head coach Travis Steele said of his opponent postgame. “I thought they set that tone early. It was a war, I thought the game was lost in that last four-minute [stretch of the first half].” 

In the second, UConn came out of the gate very sloppy, still making a decent amount of shots, but turning over the ball way too much. After just four first-half turnovers, the Huskies committed four in as many minutes out of the break. With guard RJ Cole picking up his third foul, teammate Jalen Gaffney came in to take his place, which seemingly only made things worse. 

In the three-minute span in which Gaffney replaced Cole in that second half, UConn was outscored by six and turned the ball over five times. Once Cole came back in, he scored the team’s next 11 points over the next 10 or so minutes, with a slightly better four team turnovers in that span. After the game, Cole talked about his impact after sitting out those three minutes. 

“It definitely was tough,” Cole said. “I don’t like being out of the game, tired or not. Having three fouls was definitely tough. The way the game was going, it was a rough one to sit there and watch. Sitting on the bench, I told myself to stay in it, my team was gonna need me eventually. When I got the call to get back in the game… I took it upon myself.” 

It was close in the second half for a while, as the Musketeers brought the contest to within four points with just over 11 minutes left, but yet another Huskies charge, led by Cole, helped right the ship and give the team a convincing win. The grad student guard finished the day with a game-high 16 points on 7-for-13 shooting and a game-best 17 plus/minus. 

Not to be overshadowed, sharpshooter Tyler Polley had his best game of the season, tying Cole with 16 points scored. He shot 4-for-4 from the floor, three of them beyond the arc, and knocked down five of his six free throw shots. The reigning Big East Sixth Man of the Year has had an inconsistent season, but came up big for the Huskies Saturday. 

“Every shooter goes through these slumps and high moments throughout the season,” Polley said postgame. “I just have to try to stay confident, that’s what God blessed me with, my ability to shoot. That mentality certainly paid off in this contest.” 

Saturday’s matchup was an interesting one for big man Adama Sanogo. While the sophomore typically is dominant the whole game or just the second half, Sanogo caught fire early with 15 points on 7-for-10 shooting in the first half alone. It looked like another classic performance for Sanogo, until his offensive production faltered in the second. He failed to score in the second frame, adding just three rebounds and three turnovers to his statline.  

“I thought our ball pressure [was better],” Steele said postgame on Xavier’s containment of Sanogo in the second half. “We didn’t allow them to get the ball in nearly as easily to Sanogo. I thought in the first half, they got it in too much from the top.” 

While the Musketeers put up a great fight in the second half, it rarely seemed like they had a chance in Saturday’s contest. When the sold-out Gampel Pavilion was rocking, as it was most of the game, the Huskies were able to match that energy with quality basketball. Also, Xavier didn’t have any “takeover” guys like UConn did in Cole, Polley and first-half Sanogo, with the only exception possibly being guard Adam Kunkel. The senior had very impressive spurts, hitting six out of ten shots for 15 points, but had a team-worst -22 plus/minus. Xavier’s top three scorers, Jack Nunge, Paul Scruggs and Colby Jones, were held to a combined 25 points on the day.  

For the Huskies, this game was a huge improvement upon their last matchup with Xavier just nine days prior. UConn, the best rebounding team in the Big East, lost the battle of the boards in that contest 31-35. The second time around, it was a completely different story, with the Huskies winning 42-26. They appeared so much more hungry on the glass, turning missed shots into new opportunities on offense and taking away those opportunities for Xavier on defense. 

“The difference in this game was that we dominated them on the backboard,” Huskies head coach Dan Hurley said on Saturday. “When you’re plus-16 on the backboard and 38% field goal defense, you have to be really lousy offensively to lose.” 

One of the oddest moments of the season occurred on Saturday when former UConn star James Bouknight got himself into trouble on the sidelines at Gampel. Sitting courtside, the NBA lottery pick appeared to be chirping at people on the court, standing up and being a distraction. While the real reason for the incident is unknown, one of the referees ejected him towards the end of Xavier’s comeback attempt in the second half. Instead of leaving the premises, Bouknight went into the student section, did a lap around, and watched the rest of the game from the tunnel. 

“That was not an ideal scenario, because we were playing badly and kind of melting down,” Hurley said of his former player. “He got tossed, I didn’t see what happened… I don’t want to comment on that, James is my guy.” 

At halftime, UConn inducted Harrison Fitch into its prestigious Huskies of Honor with a beautiful ceremony. Fitch was the first African American basketball player for UConn, then known as Connecticut State, back in 1932. His integration into sports predates groundbreakers like Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson, and was well received at the university. He earned the nickname “Honey” for his smooth approach to the game of basketball. At the time, Fitch was voted the best athlete at UConn and the most popular athlete in Connecticut. While Hurley was in the locker room at half, he praised the commemoration, calling it “a great move by the school.” 

UConn looks to continue its impressive homestand on Tuesday against No. 10 Villanova at the XL Center. Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcast live on FS1. 

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