The Middletown Press (Middletown, CT)

‘I love this team’

UConn rolls to blowout win in home finale, just like Hurley wanted

- By Mike Anthony

HARTFORD — Before the UConn men’s basketball team squashed DePaul 88-59 Wednesday night at the XL Center, the Huskies gathered to discuss the importance of honoring the season and its final home crowd.

“Our fans deserved better than for us to sleepwalk through an eight-point win,” coach Dan Hurley said.

His team had just done the opposite. The early UConn leads were 29-2 and 42-8 and, while the second half provided a couple things to nitpick over, the Huskies generally romped and rolled their way into March.

They look, increasing­ly, like a team that has both uncorked and harnessed the energy to meet any upcoming moment. This is a fun time of year, isn’t it?

“No, actually,” junior center Adama Sanogo said to begin the perfect answer. “It’s time to go to work again. The last couple years, our March was not good. So this year, we’ve got to make sure we don’t do the same mistakes. This is time for us to go to work again. We’ve got to keep going.”

That message, that understand­ing, is as encouragin­g as anything from the box score Wednesday, when the Huskies, as they should, jumped all over a lowly opponent, managing to make a bad team look even worse than it is.

Now UConn has to go elsewhere to play much better teams with much more, with everything, at stake. The work in Connecticu­t is over. Through 30 games and maybe 125 practices since September, the Huskies (23-7, 12-7 Big East) close the regular season Saturday in Philadelph­ia against Villanova before heading to New York for the conference tournament.

The NCAA Tournament follows, of course, and UConn’s first-round departures of the past two years are front-ofmind motivators not to overlook any part of this process — such as a home game against the DePaul, losers now of 11 games in a row.

The Huskies’ euphoric November-December rise is miles in the rearview. UConn is well past the struggles of January. The team has won seven of eight games and is humming along at a rate that should make Hurley feel as good about this team’s potential as any he has coached.

“The Rhody teams

years five and six, I went into the conference tournament knowing we were going to win it or play in the championsh­ip,” said Hurley, who took those Rhode Island teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2017 and 2018, winning a first-round game both times. “I knew we had a team that had the makeup, the personalit­y, to go into those NCAA Tournament games and not be uptight and on their heels. I think this team has got a really good confidence to them. I think we’ve got some personalit­ies in here. We’ve got some gunslinger­s on the perimeter that are going to let it fly, let it rip. Then we’ve got some guys that can dominate at center. I just think it’s a great collection of guys. I’m excited to coach these guys. I love this team.”

UConn has played 86 games since rejoining the Big East prior to the 202021 season. With a 61-25 record, the Huskies have the best overall winning percentage (.709) of any conference team in that span. Quick NCAA exits make it easy to overlook that, of course. But that body of work placed on the projection board before the game, visual representa­tion for a message Hurley was hammering home to players: You’re good. Know it. Act like it.

Then the Huskies clobbered DePaul before a sellout crowd. Sanogo had 26 points on 11 of 14 shooting. Andre Jackson flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, nine assists and eight rebounds.

UConn had 24 assists and, sure, Hurley wanted 30. The Huskies had 13 turnovers and, yes, Hurley would have been happier with six or seven. He wanted the final score to be significan­tly larger — 110-45 is something he threw out there, admitting it was unrealisti­c — and maybe there was some human-nature letup in the second half with the game in hand.

But for one team to jump another team, any team, 29-2 as if the opponent was the Washington General’s JV squad is something to behold and, yes, a statement can be made against a bottomof-the-league team at home on March 1. The Huskies made that statement in their play like Sanogo made it with his comment. They are not screwing around.

UConn, which has matched last season’s victory total, is in line for the No. 5 seed at the Big East Tournament, with an outside chance up slotting as high as the No. 3. Providence or Creighton is the likely quarterfin­al opponent. No one will know what they’ll make of their New York opportunit­y, and the big one that follows, until they’re into it. All teams can do up until tip-off of a game with a season or a title on the line is make the progress toward feeling like it is both ready and deserving.

The Huskies look both. As the team started to claw out of its mid-season slide, Hurley mentioned a few times that he felt it was in position to establish the right momentum. Several teammates sat in on a press conference Wednesday night, joking and goofing around a little as Sanogo and Andre Jackson sat in front of microphone­s and spoke.

There is a good vibe for the way the UConn has played lately. And that championsh­ip way back in November at the Phil Knight Invitation­al — which came via victories over Oregon, Alabama and Iowa State — still holds some value.

“We’re one of the few teams in the country that has proven we can win a tournament — a big tournament, against really good teams,” Hurley said. “So we know in the back of our mind. Obviously we’ve got a big game — an important, tough game — on Saturday. But we also, in the back of our mind, know we’re one of the few teams in the country that’s won a tournament, and a high-level tournament. So we’re going to go into these tournament­s with confidence.”

UConn honored its season appropriat­ely Wednesday. Hurley implored players to “show up with absolute top quality,” and they did.

The real fun begins and the real work continues well into this month.

“It’s the best time of year, really,” Jackson said. “It’s when it’s time to really pull together as a team. Most teams are peaking right now, getting to their best. Everybody on the team ... knows what they bring to the table. Everybody is more sure of themselves, and sure of the team.”

 ?? Jessica Hill/Associated Press ?? UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. (44) passes the ball to Adama Sanogo in the first half against DePaul on Wednesday.
Jessica Hill/Associated Press UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. (44) passes the ball to Adama Sanogo in the first half against DePaul on Wednesday.
 ?? Jessica Hill/Associated Press ?? UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. (44) is fouled by DePaul’s Javan Johnson in the second half on Wednesday.
Jessica Hill/Associated Press UConn’s Andre Jackson Jr. (44) is fouled by DePaul’s Javan Johnson in the second half on Wednesday.

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