UConn holds on in OT over VCU
It wasn’t pretty, but then there was very little chance it would be.
UConn, perhaps fatigued after a 90 minutes of basketball against a pair of tough teams the prior two days and certainly pestered by VCU’s harrying defense, held on for a 70-63 overtime win over the Rams in their Battle 4 Atlantis finale on Friday.
The 22nd-ranked Huskies ended up winning two of three games and finished in third place in the tournament held in the Bahamas. Sixth-ranked Baylor beat Michigan State in the championship game that preceded UConn’s game.
“We wanted to be playing against Baylor in that 11 a.m. game,” said senior guard R.J. Cole. “We couldn’t come out here without two wins.”
“We wanted to play Baylor (Friday),” added coach Dan Hurley. “But, I can live with this trip.”
UConn trailed by four with 3:21 left in regulation but tied it on an Isaiah Whaley 3-pointer with 1:05 left.
The Huskies built a seven-point lead and held on in OT to improve to 6-1 on the season.
Cole led the way with 26 points and Whaley, who fainted at the end of UConn’s double-overtime win over Auburn on Wednesday and sat out Thurs
day’s loss to Michigan State, added 16 — including his first three 3-pointers of the season.
Andre Jackson added 14 rebounds for the Huskies. Leading scorer Adama Sanogo, saddled by foul trouble, finished with just six points on 2-for-3 shooting but grabbed seven rebounds.
UConn shot a mere 33% (20-for-60) from the floor and 29% (7-for-24) from 3-point range. But VCU wasn’t any better, shooting 35% overall and 24% on 3s.
The Huskies committed 22 turnovers, and the game turned into largely a seranade of whistles as 45 fouls — a foul per minute — were called between the two teams. Much of that was due to VCU’s ball-hawking, pressure defense. The Rams entered the game seventh in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency.
In the first half, UConn was 6-for-28 from the floor, had missed 12 straight shots and trailed 28-20 when Whaley sparked a 6-0 run over the final 28 seconds of the first half with a putback.
Jalen Gaffney followed with a steal and transition layup, and after VCU missed a 3-pointer, Cole was fouled while trying to heave up a three-quarter court shot with 0.01 seconds left on the clock. Cole made two of three free throws to get UConn to within a pair (28-26) at the break.
VCU fell to 3-4, but is certainly no pushover. The Rams gave sixth-ranked Baylor, the Battle 4 Atlantis champion, its toughest challenge of the young season on Thursday in an eight-point loss. Of course, VCU also owns losses to Wagner and Chattanooga on their resume.
“It’s a high-major program that really took it to us,” Hurley said of the Rams. “But we have found out how to win.”
Here’s what we learned about the Huskies in Friday’s important, if unattractive, win:
The Huskies struggled against Auburn’s late-game pressure in Wednesday’s double-OT win and had lots of trouble against VCU, as well. Cole is the team’s best ball-handler, but he’s hardly a one-man pressbreaker. Gaffney has some handle, but players like Jackson, Tyrese Martin and freshman Jordan Hawkins need to pick up the slack. Perhaps freshman Rahsool Diggins can be a help at some point, too.
“Obviously, the way we handle pressure, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Hurley said. “We did some things with the ball today that were incredibly bizarre ... It’s a little bit of an Achilles heel for us. We don’t have a lot of handling guards. So, pressure is an issue for us. We’re gonna have to really work at it. We don’t have the guards to just kind of dribble through it, or give it to a guy who can just put the pressure on its heels.”
And it will only get tougher for the Huskies in upcoming games against West Virginia (Dec. 8), Marquette (Dec. 21) and St. John’s (Jan. 12).
WHALEY CAN HIT FROM DISTANCE
Hurley spent practically the entire off-season pleading for Whaley (and Akok Akok and the team’s other power forwards) to shoot more 3-pointers. He set a goal for Whaley to hit about 30 3’s (about one per game) this season.
Whaley had been 0-for-4 from distance entering Friday’s game, but went 3-for-3 against VCU, including a couple of huge ones at the end of regulation and in overtime.
“I felt like if I hit one 3, then I was gonna feel a lot more confident shooting the other ones,” Whaley reported.
“I’m telling you, he makes them,” Hurley added. “If you were around us daily and you see him in the summer, the guy makes them. It hasn’t translated to the court, but I’m telling you, he makes them. He’s got a nice release, he’s got good rotation. If we could ever get that from him, which he’s capable of, that’s gonna open up the court for us so much offensively.”
COLE EMERGING AS A GO-TO GUY
After Thursday’s loss to Michigan State, Hurley pulled Cole aside and told him he had to be more assertive, pointing in particular to a play late in the game where he gave the ball up to Jackson that ultimately led to a costly turnover.
“‘You’ve got to drag that out and do what a UConn guard would do in that situation, go try to make that shot to put the game away,’” Hurley told Cole. “And he did that all day long today.”
Cole shot 7-for-17 from the floor on Friday, hit a trio of 3-pointers and canned 9 of 10 free throws. He hit a 3-pointer with 6:15 left in regulation to tie the game at 47 and converted a conventional 3-point play less than a minute later to tie it again at 50.
WHALEY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT GUY
Whaley’s season-high scoring game was punctuated by a layup, foul and free throw with four seconds left that sealed the victory and had him headbutting the basket stanchion in celebration/relief.
He grabbed four rebounds, blocked two shots and had a pair of steals in another all-around effort.
“He’s not our best allaround player,” Hurley noted, “but he’s our most important player ... The winning didn’t begin at UConn until he emerged.”
Had UConn beat Michigan State on Thursday and played Baylor in Friday’s championship game, the Huskies could have found themselves among the top 10 or 15 teams in the AP Top 25 poll on Monday at noon. A win over Baylor could have almost assured a spot in the Top 10.
As it is, UConn will likely at least stay put at No. 22, depending on other results this weekend. It’s unlikely the Huskies will drop out of the rankings.