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UConn Men’s Basketball Puts Down SMU to Earn First Conference Win, 76-64

UConn earned its first conference win of the year with a victory over SMU.

Dan Hurley reacts during a UConn men’s basketball game against SMU on January 10, 2019.
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

UConn men’s basketball’s guards put on a shooting clinic, carrying the Huskies to a 76-64 win over the SMU Mustangs at Gampel Pavilion on Thursday night for their first American Athletic Conference win of the season.

The Huskies (10-6, 1-2 AAC) shot .474 from three in the victory, five of which were provided by the team’s leading scorers, Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert. Adams finished with 21 points and Gilbert scored 19 in a return to form for both players.

Christian Vital added eleven points and tied for the team lead in rebounds, while Tyler Polley broke a cold streak by knocking down a three and scoring five of the Huskies’ first seven points.

The game started uncharacteristically fast for this SMU team, with both the Mustangs and the Huskies scoring on fast break opportunities and taking early three-point attempts. Despite being out of their comfort zone—or maybe just head coach Tim Jankovich’s comfort zone—the Ponies were only down by one at the first break.

Bucking a recent trend, UConn did not find itself in foul trouble in the first half; the officiating crew didn’t blow the whistle for contact for either team in the first six minutes. The Huskies were charged with their first foul eleven minutes into the game, and ended the first half with only five as a team and no player with more than one.

The turnover problem, on the other hand, reared its ugly head again. Even against a conservative defense such as SMU’s, the Huskies still gave the ball away four times in the first ten minutes. The discrepancy in rebounding only compounded the issue of SMU having many more scoring opportunities than UConn, and although some of it was due to unlucky bounces, the Mustangs grabbed 10 offensive boards in the half, regularly scoring on their second chances.

The Huskies’ sharp shooting was the story of the first period of play, carrying them to a 42-31 halftime lead. UConn was 6-10 from three in the first twenty minutes, converting the same amount of total field goals in the half as SMU, but on ten fewer attempts than the Mustangs. Gilbert’s only miss in the half was a desperation three at the end of the shot clock and the starters missed only seven total shots—free throws included—before halftime.

The Huskies came out of the locker room with energy—including Dan Hurley, who was knocked down by Polley chasing a loose ball—despite the Mustangs slowing down the pace to their liking. Sidney Wilson established himself as a factor when Polley sat down due to fouls, blocking shots and grabbing rebounds to bolster the UConn defensive effort.

The defensive frontcourt of Wilson and Josh Carlton—as well as Gilbert and Christian Vital’s high-intensity performances—forced the Mustangs to speed the game back up, a speed they were unaccustomed to. The Huskies exploited an SMU miscommunication to take a 15-point lead five minutes into the half on a Gilbert trey from the top of the arc.

As the Mustangs switched to a zone defense, grinding the Huskies offensive flow to a standstill, they went on a quick 7-0 run. SMU, a shallow team that plays a short rotation, benefited from getting all their starters back into the game following first-half foul trouble. The Huskies didn’t adjust to the zone quickly, and turned the ball over several times during the intermediate minutes of the half. Hurley switched to a lineup designed to space the floor—a forward combo of Polley and Eric Cobb alongside Adams, Gilbert (then Vital), and Tarin Smith—and saw the offensive benefits immediately.

Three-point shooting continued to be the difference-maker and even with natural regression, the Huskies continued to knock down their outside shots. The Mustangs, pressed for scoring, pulled the trigger from deep a few too many times, creating an even bigger hole when they missed. SMU made only three of its 23 attempts from beyond the arc.

The Huskies took another 15-point lead with five minutes remaining, and closed out the game from there. UConn slowed the game down intentionally for the first time all night, but SMU struggled to score even when playing its preferred style of basketball. The Huskies had advantages in both shooting and depth, and ran a gameplan that allowed those disparities to become the game’s biggest factors.

SMU (10-5, 2-1 AAC) was led by Jimmy Whitt with 20 points on .500 shooting, a bright spot in an otherwise inefficient game. Jahmal McMurray, leading the team in points per game, scored 15 but hit only five of his 18 attempts from the floor. The Mustangs host Tulsa on Saturday evening.

Carlton was a boon to the team on both ends of the floor yet again, continuing a steady season, and Tarin Smith was a burst of controlled energy off the bench. The Huskies visit rival Cincinnati on Saturday night.