By KEVIN McNAMARA
STORRS, Conn. – So that’s what the real Connecticut Huskies look like.
For the first 14 games of their season, Dan Hurley’s team played as well as any team in America. Then a funny thing happened, something called the Big East Conference.
Listen to Hurley and the roll of opponents that his team ran up against in January would test the mettle of any team. That’s what trips to Xavier, Providence and Marquette can did to the Huskies and they did not meet the challenge. Before you knew it, UConn had lost 5-of-6 and were just 4-5 in the Big East.
But the Big East is not like the ACC, the Big Ten or some other football-sized behemoth. This conference guarantees home-and-home contests against every team so if you run into the drunken mobs at the AMP one night in January, you can welcome Providence back to Gampel Pavilion on $2 Miller Light can Night.
And you have a chance to even a few scores.
As the schedule has turned, so have the Huskies. That was certainly on display Wednesday night at Gampel as the Huskies were pushed for 25 minutes and then sprinted past the Friars, 87-69. While the rowdy Senior Night crowd certainly helped, this one was decided much more by a dominating rebounding edge (40-20, 15 offensive), some aggressive defense and a heaping helping of Jordan Hawkins (20 points).
“Great performance by the boys tonight,” a happy Hurley said. “It was an incredible advantage to play in here tonight.”
Asked about the rebounding avalanche where PC’s Bryce Hopkins somehow didn’t grab a single board (is that even possible??), Hurley said “I was hoping for plus-five (edge) on the glass. They’re men, they’re hard to beat plus on the back-board.”
So while UConn (21-7, 10-7) is happy with its fifth win in six games, the Friars drove back home over Route 6 wondering what happened. It is not easy to win at Gampel – or anywhere in the Big East – but this is now five losses in the last six conference road games. The final roadie comes Sunday at Georgetown, a game that is certainly a must if the Friars (20-8, 12-5) hope to remain in the running for a top four finish in the conference.
“I’ll take the loss for that, I didn’t have my guys prepared. It was Men against Boys in the second half,” Ed Cooley said. “I thought the atmosphere here was big-time. That was one of Connecticut’s best games from start to finish in a long time.”
The Friars matched the Huskies shot-for-shot for the first half only to trail 37-32 at the break after two late defensive breakdowns. That served as a harbinger of things to come in the second half.
PC was out-scored in the final 20 minutes 50-37 and let the Huskies shoot 50 percent. UConn’s significant size advantage shined through with 42 points in the paint to PC’s 24. Combined that with the 40-20 rebounding advantage and it doesn’t take long to see what happened in the woods of Eastern Connecticut.
“Danny did a great job having his kids ready. My kids weren’t,” he said. “I thought we were soft and we were not connected. I think the environment had a lot to do with that. The two dollar beers definitely worked. That was a game that they needed to win, and they played like it.”
Bryce Hopkins led the Friars with 16 points but was limited to just 10 field goal tries. Jared Bynum shot it great in the first half but was shut down in the second where he totaled just two of his 14 points.
“The ball doesn’t go in the basket, you get frustrated,” Cooley said. “I think Bryce Hopkins is the best player in the Big East, hands down. They didn’t make much of an adjustment, the ball didn’t find him, they were very aggressive and we weren’t.”
The first half was an odd one, if only because the Friars and Huskies failed to get to the foul line. Yes, they combined for zero free throws and just five fouls.
The half ended with UConn up 37-32 but that was only due to a nice late flourish. PC tied the game at 32-32 after Bynum’s fourth 3-pointer of the half and a nice lane jumper by Noah Locke (11 points) with 1:10 to play. Hurley called his allotted timeout and did a great job lining up a play that led to an easy Alex Karaban (16 points, 8 rebounds) layup at the rim. After a Carter missed jumper, Naheim Alleyne hit his second 3-pointer of the half (not bad for a 28 percent 3-point shooter) to push the Huskie lead to five at the break.
The start of the second half belonged to the Huskies as Hawkins got things going with a drive and a 3-pointer and before you could say ‘Okafor’ the Huskies were up 44-34. The Friars fought back with a 7-0 run to make it 48-46 but that would be it for the visitors.
Instead of continuing the push, the Friars just got pushed around. The Huskies drove the ball hard at the Providence defense to get to the basket and Hawkins looked like Ray Allen on too many jump shot attempts. The biggest issue came off the boards as PC only saw one shot and UConn grabbed its misses on a regular basis. Massive freshman center Donovan Clingan totaled seven points and had just as much of an impact in the lane than star big Adama Sanogo who hurt the Friars with 16 points.
TITLE HOPES GONE?: Marquette took a giant step towards a Big East crown with its win at Crieghton Tuesday. The Golden Eagles (14-3) are in the driver’s seat with PC, Xavier and the Bluejays all at 12-5 and MU lined up to face DePaul, Butler and St. John’s to end its season.
“We’re not just mailing in championships,” Cooley said. “You have to play the games. They have the inside track.”
FRIAR FINISH: Providence will go to Georgetown and then wrap things up at The AMP against Xavier and Seton Hall next week. PC is looking to finish a perfect 17-0 at home for the first time since 1974.
ROUND 3: Could we see PC-UConn for a third time at Madison Square Garden?
In a word, yes.
The Huskies are two games behind PC, Creighton and Xavier and likely looking at the five seed in New York. One of the three teams above them will be the four and match up in an epic 4 vs. 5 game at 2:30 on March 9.
“The next time we play we’re going to have a different conversation,” Cooley said of an projected Friar-Huskie matchup. “It will definitely be different in New York if we play. We just didn’t have it today, that’s on me and my staff. We didn’t do a good job preparing them emotionally, mentally or physically. To be 40-20 on the backboard….there was a better C.Y.O. game this crowd could’ve watched. That was a bullshit effort my team had out there.”