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UConn men’s basketball defeats NJIT, 69-47

Christian Vital scored 23 points as the Huskies routed the Highlanders.

Christian Vital paced UConn with 23 points
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The UConn men’s basketball team closed out the year (and decade) in style, blowing out the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), 69-47, to improve to 9-3. Senior Christian Vital paced the Huskies with 23 points and five rebounds, while sophomore Brendan Adams added 12 points on 5-7 shooting. Freshman Akok Akok did a little bit of everything, finishing with seven points, 10 rebounds, and a team-high five blocks.

UConn’s ball pressure made life difficult for NJIT. Alterique Gilbert in particular put the clamps on Zach Cooks — the Highlanders’ leading scorer and first team All-Atlantic Sun selection — with Cooks’ first and only field goal of the half coming at the 12:52 mark. Offensively, Akok helped UConn carve out an early lead, scoring seven quick points on a three, putback, and alley-oop.

Even when Gilbert was out, Brendan Adams and freshman Jalen Gaffney continued to make life miserable for Cooks. After back-to-back threes from junior Tyler Polley and Vital, UConn looked in command up 15.

Those two threes were a byproduct of the great ball movement by the Huskies Sunday afternoon. Polley’s three came from a drawn up pin-down screen, reinforcing recent emphasis on getting the three-point specialist more designed plays. The second came off a block and a savvy heads-up pass from Gaffney to find the wide open Vital, a fast break play that’s become a common occurrence this year.

NJIT rattled off a mini 6-0 run after switching to a 2-3 zone, but a steal, exclamation-point dunk, and another three from Vital kept UConn’s lead comfortably in double-digits going into the half.

While the Huskies have a tendency, regardless of the opponent, to struggle for stretches of games, there would be no such lull in this game. UConn got any shot it wanted and kept up its suffocating defense throughout.

A 14-2 UConn run with 13:02 left put a bow on things for good, highlighted by several well-executed fast breaks off blocked shots. From then on out, it was about developing the bench and working on offensive execution. Junior Sidney Wilson had a nice weak-side block, Adams showed off his shooting stroke, and Gaffney adeptly ran the offense.

UConn’s guards did a great job containing Cooks to 12 points on 4-12 shooting, with most of his points coming in garbage time. The Huskies had some recent struggles with turnovers, but had only 10 in both the NJIT and New Hampshire games. They added 11 blocks and 19 fast break points on Sunday.

After the St. Joe’s debacle earlier in the year, Husky fans know not to take any team for granted. Heading into 2020 and conference play, UConn has dispatched its last three opponents by an average of 19 points, which is exactly what you’re supposed to do against lesser talented teams.

UConn will kick off 2020 and its last go-round of American Athletic Conference play with a road tilt against Cincinnati. Tip-off will be at 7 p.m. on New Years Day.