MBB: UConn takes over New York with dominant Empire Classic showing

UConn guards Tristen Newton and Hassan Diarra warmup before a game against the Indiana Hoosiers on Nov. 20 at Madison Square Garden. Photo by Evan Rodriguez/The Daily Campus

When you hear the terms Madison Square Garden and UConn men’s basketball, it’s hard not to think of blockbuster basketball. With two games on Sunday and Monday for Connecticut, the program traveled to what many call “Storrs South” for the Empire Classic, and like many times prior, the Huskies came to play.

UConn grabs dominant 77-57 win over Indiana

Early in Connecticut’s non-conference schedule, the Empire Classic was circled as a perfect opportunity to showcase their talent against stronger competitors, with the first of those matchups being against Indiana. It was going to be a frontcourt battle all the way through as the Hoosiers brought out a dynamic duo of Kel’el Ware and Malik Reneau. That meant that both Alex Karaban and Donovan Clingan were certainly going to have their hands full. 

Early in the game, that was certainly the case. While the Huskies were able to get some early buckets, Indiana fired right back as Ware led the charge. With a small 5-point lead about halfway through the first half, Connecticut really started to turn on the burners after Karaban got a huge run started with an and-one layup and a three-pointer. As the clock winded down to 6:10, Tristen Newton gave the Huskies an 11-point lead. 

But Reneau and the Hoosiers were determined to not let their opponents control the game. Led by the Florida native, Indiana closed the gap to just a 37-30 score at the half despite double-digit scoring from both Newton and the fiery Cam Spencer. While the Huskies stood strong with a seven-point lead and plenty of energy ahead of the second half, someone needed to step up to close this one.

Once again, that player happened to be UConn’s star point guard. His 12 points in the second half were pivotal for Connecticut. When Indiana tried a run of their own, Newton helped the Huskies offense run and generated some incredible shots. 

As the former East Carolina transfer got going, so did Spencer with him. The Rutgers transfer’s 11 second-half points added another layer of scoring to an impressive offensive night from Connecticut. With an efficient 5-8 shooting night, Spencer helped energize his entire squad with some superb play.

But the real dagger for Indiana came with 7:04 left. By then, Reneau was in massive foul trouble with four fouls and his fifth would come with over seven minutes left, taking him out of the game. That would eliminate one of the Hoosiers’ core offensive weapons and give a huge shift of momentum toward Connecticut. 

With little answer from Mike Woodson’s squad, UConn catapulted their lead to 20 and ended any hope of a win for Indiana. When the final buzzer sounded, the program would walk away with a dazzling 77-57 win over a talented program.

However, the real work had just begun.

No. 5 Huskies secure first ranked win of season over No. 15 Longhorns

Thanks to a game winning shot from Max Abmas, Texas not only clawed their way past Louisville to get to the Empire Classic Championship game, but they also climbed four spots to the No. 15 spot in AP Top 25 poll. 

That mean that Connecticut was in for a heck of a challenge, even without going against Kadin Shedrick. The senior big man’s shoulder injury was a big blow prior to tipoff for the Longhorns, especially from a defensive perspective. Could they neutralize UConn’s frontcourt enough to stop a potential scoring outburst in the paint? That answer would prove to be no.

While Sunday’s duo of the day was Spencer and Newton, Monday’s star pair would be the frontcourt duo of Karaban and Samson Johnson. For the redshirt sophomore, he would get his squad’s offense started with a triple from beyond the arc. With the help of some key offense from Spencer and Solo Ball, the Huskies cruised to a 10-5 lead early with 17:59 left in the first half.

But then came Samson Johnson. While the Togolese big man has had a great start to the season, Monday night’s performance from him gave fans even more of a reason to start talking. The 6’10” junior was electric on both ends of the floor, helping give Connecticut momentum with his interior defense, athletic dunks and strong rebounding.

UConn guard Cam Spencer shoots during the team’s pregame warmups before a game against the Indiana Hoosiers on Nov. 20 at Madison Square Garden. Photo by Evan Rodriguez/The Daily Campus

His first of many massive moments came not long after his entrance into the game. As Johnson rolled to the rim, Newton drove and found his teammate with an alley-oop that resulted in an explosive, rim-rattling slam. It would be a scene that UConn fans would watch throughout the night and in just the first half, Johnson would lead all scorers with 11 points going into the half.

Despite a 42-29 lead late in the first half, Rodney Terry was not going to let his squad get run off the court. One of the answers to Texas’ offensive surge was Dillon Mitchell, whose 15 first half points helped keep the program in the game. While the Longhorns trailed Dan Hurley and Co. by a score of 46-33 and had plenty of problems to fix, the second half showed that they stepped up their game.

At first, it was Mitchell who resumed his first-half play with two quick jumpers after an Abmas three pointer. Connecticut’s defense struggled against the Longhorns offense and following another three pointer by Abmas, it was an eight point game at The Garden. 

While Texas’ starting power forward was the biggest story in the first half for his squad, it was Tyrese Hunter that took over in the second half of this game. Despite accumulating 0 points in the first half, the Wisconsin native gave Connecticut all types of trouble, scoring 13 points in about 15 minutes of gametime. 

Despite Texas giving their all, it wouldn’t prove to be enough. The roster clawed back to narrow UConn’s lead to just four with 5:24 to go and remained confident despite plays like a flashy Hassan Diarra alley-oop to Johnson. If the Huskies couldn’t make their shots, the Longhorns would be ready to jump on every opportunity to score and push toward victory. Lucky for Connecticut, it was Karaban who came to the rescue. 

On three insane shots, including two fadeaway jumpers, the Massachusetts native buried the Longhorns and erased all hope of a comeback. From there, the Huskies closed it out via some Spencer free throws and the program went on to secure their first ranked win of the season. 

Coming off two huge Empire Classic victories, UConn will have two more matchups at home before their biggest test of the season, Dec. 1 at Kansas. 

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