It was an ugly game to watch, but the Huskies were able to come away with a dominant win over Saint Peter’s Peacocks on Wednesday night, thanks to a stifling defense led by freshman Akok Akok and a resurgent bench led by freshman guard Jalen Gaffney.
Steals and blocks
According to Jalen Gaffney, Akok treated Saint Peter’s defenders on Wednesday night just like he does his own teammates every day in practice. It’s only fair, right?
“I think he’s blocked everyone in practice at least twice, three times,” Gaffney laughed after a deep breath in. “There’s not too many people like Akok.”
UConn is ranked fifth in the nation in block percentage and 35th in the nation in overall defensive efficiency per KenPom, in no small part to Akok’s Go-Go Gadget arms and athleticism — the freshman had five blocks and two steals, the former wasn’t even a season-high.
So they were bound to wreak havoc on a 2-5 Peacock’s squad scoring just 65 points per game, but what the Huskies did on Wednesday night impressed beyond that.
UConn put Saint Peter’s in the torture rack in all phases of the game: Every time a Peacocks player entered the paint, they ran up against a hail of arms and hands that made it nearly impossible for the ball to approach the rim. When a guard took it outside, they found themselves mercilessly attacked by Christian Vital or Alterique Gilbert to the delight of fans in the XL Center.
"How to Play Defense" by Alterique Gilbert pic.twitter.com/YTq7voaHom— Matt Zampini (@Matt_Zamp) December 19, 2019
The Huskies’ 12 team steals and 10 blocks were both season highs, and the Huskies allowed just 22 points in the first half and 56 points in the game, holding Saint Peter’s to 39 percent shooting.
We knew that the Peacocks would have to rebound well and catch fire from three to have a chance at pulling an upset like Saint Joseph’s did, and at first glance, it looked like UConn was able to keep them from doing neither. The Peacocks out-rebounded UConn 13 to nine on the offensive boards, and hit five of eight from three, but both marks were well below their season averages.
“One of our strengths is hitting the offensive glass, but normally our people who do well just couldn’t against this team,” St. Peter’s coach Shaheen Calloway said after the game.
Peacocks freshman Doug Edert, in particular, was taking an average of five 3-pointers a game and hitting half of them, but the Huskies were able to successfully shut him down.
“They did a good job on Edert, he’s one of our best shooters and they denied him,” Calloway said. “We told him, ‘When they do that, drive on them,’ and they had him froze.”
The Saint Peter’s players seemed reluctant to take it to the rack as the game wore on, and it’s easy to see why with Akok guarding the paint.
“I don’t know if you can hear me, but every time we’re about to give up a layup or our transition defense doesn’t look good, I just yell Akok’s name and he blocks it,” head coach Dan Hurley said.
The Jalen Gaffney Game
After struggling against Indiana in a game where they didn’t score a single point put together, the bench guard unit of Jalen Gaffney, James Bouknight and Brendan Adams had a bounce-back game on Wednesday night.
Gaffney, in particular, had the most impressive game of his career. He certainly got extended run in garbage time, but his 10 points and 5 assists were both career highs and led the bench. He looked comfortable on the court for the first time in a UConn uniform, leading a resurgent bench that had scored just five total points against Indiana.
“[Saint Peter’s] is an underrated tough team for freshman guard to play against because they get after you, they are gritty and tough, and they attack the ball so that was really good to see for his confidence,” Hurley said.
After coming into his freshman season hurt, Gaffney still has “a long way to go,” in his own words, to be where he wants to be physically, having only gained about 15 lbs. since enrolling.
“When his physical maturity catches up with his skill and his game, you know he’s gonna be really good,” Hurley said.
Much of Gaffney’s improvements this season have come in practice, where he gets to go up against two very different players that help him improve his game in different ways on both ends of the floor: Alterique Gilbert and Akok.
“He’s quick, fast, strong, he’s one of the hardest players I’ve ever had to guard because I have to guard him every single day, every play every practice,” Gaffney said.
Even if Gaffney somehow gets past Gilbert in run-throughs, he still has to face up against Akok, one of the best shot-blockers in the country.
“With him down it helps us a lot, because he’ll get up there and block anything, so we have to find different ways to score,” Gaffney said.