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UConn men’s basketball runs past Sacred Heart, 89-67

The Huskies overcame a sluggish first half to put away the Pioneers.

Christian Vital scored 17 points in UConn’s home opening win vs. Sacred Heart
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

For many UConn men’s basketball fans, the bitter taste of early season losses and close calls from years past still lingers. So when UConn overcame a shoddy start to cruise to a 89-67 victory over in-state rival Sacred Heart to open the season, we all breathe a little easier tonight.

After a first half that Dan Hurley called “terrible” in his halftime interview, the Huskies came out with renewed vigor in the second half and put things back in their natural order. Junior Josh Carlton led UConn with 18 points and eight rebounds while senior Christian Vital chipped in with 17 of his own to go with seven rebounds and a career-high seven steals. It was a balanced scoring effort, with five Huskies finishing in double digits,

First Half

For many, the online stream was experiencing “technical difficulties” that were apparently discovered them at 8 p.m., but they didn’t miss much— the first half was a rock-fight. UConn shot 1-of-7 from three (14%), was out-rebounded 28-13 and gave up 10 second-chance points. Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert started off cold while Sid Wilson and Tyler Polley led the scoring for the Huskies after 20. The UConn defense was decent, with Polley looking particularly spry on that end.

When asked what stood out from that first half, Dan Hurley said “just how terrible we are,” so you can only imagine how he tore into the team at the break. He echoed those sentiments after the game.

Second Half

An entirely different Husky team came out to start the second half. Offensively, UConn was focused on making the extra pass, on the break and in half-court sets. Carlton scored the team’s first eight points, then two steals and back-to-back threes from Vital capped a 16-4 UConn run. The offense got a spark from the Huskies getting it done on the other end. Sacred Heart went a key two-minute stretch without scoring, with Brendan Adams’ on-ball pressure particularly standing out.

With about 12 minutes to play, a Sidney Wilson weak-side block put the Huskies on the break. Tyler Polley passed up an open look to Vital, who continued his heat-check with a deep three. It was great awareness from Polley, who wasn’t shooting the ball well, finding the hot hand and not forcing things himself.

With the Huskies up 20 and 10 minutes to play, UConn did a good job of keeping Sacred Heart at bay. The Pioneers cut it to 11 with just over seven to go, taking advantage of some UConn defensive lapses and more second-chance points. Wilson, Akok Akok, Carlton, and Tyler Polley were blocking shots, as the Huskies had nine rejections on the night, but at the same time that also meant the weak-side open was wide open at times.

The lead never fell to single digits though, and some slicing drives from Vital kept the game out of reach.

With the game well in hand late, Brandon Adams continued to flash with aggressive defense and confident takes to the hoop. Wilson appeared more polished, threatening on the offensive glass and looking more comfortable with the ball in his hands.

It was a tremendous way to bounce back after a sloppy first half and avoid the dreaded opening night upset. Plus, UConn out-rebounded the Pioneers 28-21 in the second half.

When it was all said and done, the Huskies had scored 30 points off 25 Sacred Heart turnovers, logged 48 points in the paint, and got a solid 34 points from the bench.

“After the way we have played around here the last few years, there’s no excuse for the way we started this game,” Hurley said in his post-game interview. “I think we saw the score of the Providence game and thought it would be easy. But we aren’t as good as Providence yet.”

Those were some pretty strong words, and it’s understandable for Hurley to be critical of his team’s early performance. But at the same time, Sacred Heart is no slouch. They were picked to win the Northeastern Conference by some, and E.J. Anosike posed a matchup problem on paper. UConn responded to their first hiccup well, and will look to keep the improvement going in their next game on Wednesday, Nov. 13 against Saint Joseph’s.