Josh Carlton finished with career highs in both scoring and rebounds as the sophomore center led UConn to a 76-52 win over East Carolina at the XL Center on Sunday afternoon.
The sophomore center scored 20 points on 7-11 field goal shooting with 16 rebounds, three blocks, and an assist, carrying the Huskies to a big victory that didn’t look like a sure thing during the first half. Leading scorer Jalen Adams was benched in the second half, finishing with zero points, leaving a void for someone else to fill, and Carlton did just that.
Christian Vital finished with 18 points and a game-high seven assists—as many as the entire Pirates team—in a complementary performance, while Sidney Wilson was a perfect five-for-five from the floor, including a pair of 3-pointers. A cold spell at the beginning of the game made way for an improved Huskies offense in the second half, finishing the game shooting 49.1 percent from the field and 35.3 percent from beyond the arc.
The Huskies (13-9, 4-5 American) got off to an uncharacteristically slow start, taking three minutes to hit a field goal, but their defense was forcing the Pirates out of their comfort zone. The frenzied, undisciplined start for the UConn offense was only mitigated by East Carolina mirroring the style on the other end.
Nine minutes in, the score was tied at nine, evidence of a sloppy game that had as many turnovers as made shots. Carlton and Tyler Polley were the only consistent offensive options in the early going, leading a mismatched frontcourt while the perimeter shooting was ice cold, missing the first seven 3-point attempts.
The absence of Alterique Gilbert, missing his second-straight game due to a minor shoulder injury, clearly affected the Huskies again, as they didn’t look totally comfortable in their shortened rotations. The starting trio of Vital, Adams, and Tarin Smith combined for 3-15 shooting from the floor in the first half, giving the Huskies only a 32-26 advantage at the break.
A looser style more typical of the Huskies’ prior performances opened up their offense early in the second half, scoring far more regularly and naturally than they did in the first. Foul trouble began to mount for both teams, though, with Smith’s three fouls making way for Brendan Adams, but three important Pirates, including defensive standout Seth LeDay, had to adjust their play due to a trio of violations apiece.
The Huskies offense continued to struggle with jumpers, especially as Dan Hurley kept Jalen Adams on the bench for almost the entire second half, but aggressiveness and well-paced play kept them ahead of a Pirates side still struggling to score. The reduced lineup, even when missing two prominent starters, simply outclassed the opponent.
East Carolina never threatened to take the lead, or even tie, because of UConn’s improved shooting midway through the second frame, as Vital and Wilson connected on back-to-back threes. An improved inside-out game gave Carlton more room to work in the low post and the shooters more space, combining to create an offensive environment that had too many options for the Pirates to stop.
The Huskies took their first 20-point lead with five and a half minutes left to play, having steadily increased the scoring margin during the entire late period. Carlton continued to dominate underneath, displaying superior rebounding ability and a comfort in the post game that allowed him to get his shot off with ease. Despite the tension in the first half, closing out the game never appeared worrisome for UConn.
The Pirates (9-11, 2-7 AAC) were led by K.J. Davis with 13 points. Leading scorer Jayden Gardner, a freshman having an unexpectedly great year carrying a huge workload, was held to nine points on 2-10 shooting due to the strong interior defense of Carlton and Polley. East Carolina hosts Wichita State on Wednesday.
Polley finished with 13 points and Smith eleven, two of five Huskies who finished in double figures. Brendan Adams was the only bench player to score besides Wilson, but Eric Cobb grabbed four rebounds in a performance time-limited due to Carlton’s excellent game.
UConn visits NCAA Tournament bubble team Temple on Wednesday.