Up and Running
Hurley era opens with a victory, promising signs
STORRS — Hello, Hurley! That was the greeting Dan Hurley got from the Gampel Pavilion sellout as he walked onto the floor for the first time officially as UConn head coach Thursday night, about five minutes before opening tip-off. The 10,167 fans in the house were glad to see him, and left the building even happier with the performance of Josh Carlton. The sophomore forward scored a career-high 17 points to go with eight rebounds and helped UConn to an 80-70 victory over Morehead State to kick off the Hurley Era.
“Josh had a high motor,” said guard Alterique Gilbert. “That’s what we’re looking for out of Josh — high motor, high energy every night.”
There has never been any questions about Hurley’s motor, and that was on full display, as well. At one point in the second half, Carlton fell to the floor going after a loose ball under the Huskies’ basket. Hurley raced about 50 feet from the sideline near UConn’s bench to the baseline, and was the first to help Carlton to his feet.
“I’ve never seen a coach do that,” senior guard Jalen Adams remarked. “Just to see him do stuff like that, it shows how intune to the game he is and how much he cares about us as players, and the game.”
Just another night at the office for the high-wired Hurley? Not really.
“Obviously, we’re thrilled to get the first one,” he said. “My three most nerve-wracking days as a head coach were my first one at Wagner, first one at Rhode Island and first one here. When you’re coaching a new team, a lot of guys you haven’t even recruited, you just have no idea what they’re gonna do. Especially with the great crowd.”
But the Huskies put up a good — if not great — effort, never trailing but never quite able to
put Morehead State (1-1) away until the final minutes.
“You can’t go from not good to a team with a killer instinct, but there were pockets in that game where we had a chance to extend it,” Hurley noted. “We were playing with fire, get it to 12, 14 ... and we let them back in. We just showed a lack of a killer instinct, where we had a chance to bury them a couple of times and we let them hang around.”
Adams and Gilbert, who has missed almost all of the past two seasons with shoulder injuries, worked through some foul trouble and combined for 31 points. Tarin Smith added 12 points and a little of everything else, including four assists, four rebounds and a charge, and Brendan Adams hit a pair of welltimed, second-half 3-pointers. Christian Vital struggled from the floor but grabbed eight rebounds.
UConn got out on the break at times, and when it couldn’t, found Carlton down low. The 6-foot-10 sophomore played as well as he’s played as a collegian, though it should be noted that Morehead State didn’t use a single player taller than 6-foot-7.
“Coach just reminded me, for us to play to our full potential, I’ve got to be able to step up,” Carlton said. “I’ve got to be a guy they can depend on. Coming into the season, there’s been a lot of doubt on our frontcourt, a lot of emphasis on our backcourt. That’s why, if I do my work, we’ll be a good team.”
Said Hurley: “Josh has got real talent. He’s gonna be in the deep end of the pool here this year. We need him — as a sophomore, still a young player — to perform at a high level if we’re gonna be successful. If his motor’s up, his activity’s up, the way it was at times tonight, he’s got a chance to be a really, really good player. He’s got a chance to be a starting player on a really, really good UConn team.”
It wasn’t all positives, of course. Despite Morehead State’s small size, the Huskies only narrowly won the rebounding battle, 41-36.
“The rebounding, at times, was infuriating,” Hurley noted. “And we just made some mental errors that we can get better from.”
UConn looked good at times in the first half, getting out on the break, hitting a few 3s and running up as much as a 13-point (33-20) lead with 5:44 left. But the Eagles quickly countered with an 8-0 run and stayed close the rest of the half.
The first half ended on a terrible sequence for the Huskies, as the Eagles grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw with 11 seconds left and worked the ball around to Malek Green, who canned a trey at the buzzer.
The Huskies’ lead was a mere 37-33 at the break.
Morehead State stuck around for the first 10 minutes of the latter half until a 9-2 run gave the Huskies some breathing room.
“Overall, we got some jitters out,” Hurley said. “I’m happy with the performance.”
⏩ The sellout was UConn’s first at Gampel since March 6, 2016 against UCF.
“I’d like to thank the crowd for showing up and supporting us tonight,” Hurley said. “They were awesome, the students were awesome. As we’re building this, we need them back on Sunday just like that. We’re trying to build this thing back to an elite level. This team needs that. It gives us an edge in terms of winning, getting our credibility back. It also helps, with the optics, with the recruits and everything. As far as it’s been the last couple of years, we need that fan support.”
Early in the second half, a huge banner that read “Fight On Connecticut” was unveiled by the student section, covering nearly the entire section during a timeout.
⏩ Sophomore forward Isaiah Whaley sprained his left ankle midway through the first half. He returned to the floor briefly later in the half, but sat out the entire second half. Hurley said afterwards that it was largely precautionary, and that Whaley probably could have returned to the game if necessary.
⏩ Akok Akok, a highlytouted Class of 2019 power forward, was on an unofficial visit to UConn on Thursday and attended the game. Akok was joined by Putnam Science Academy teammates Kareim Reid and Hassan Diarra. Akok has made official visits to UConn, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Providence.
UConn’s Alterique Gilbert, left, and Jalen Adams celebrate during the first half of Thursday’s game against Morehead State in Storrs.
UConn’s Jalen Adams, left, drives to the basket as Morehead State’s Jordan Walker defends during the first half of Thursday’s game in Storrs.