The UConn men’s basketball team closed out it’s last game at the XL Center this year with a resounding 81-65 win against the UCF Knights. The Huskies improve to 16-12 and 7-8 in the American Athletic Conference, as well as 13-3 at home.
Junior Isaiah Whaley continued to be a revelation, pacing UConn with a career-high 18 points and 11 rebounds, his fourth double-double of the season. He also logged two blocks, a steal, and countless hustle plays that anchored UConn’s defense.
AAC steals leader Christian Vital added 18 points and three steals of his own. Freshman James Bouknight chipped in 16 for his 10th-straight game scoring 12 points or more. Every UConn rotation player entered the scorers column in a team effort that was largely decided with 10 minutes remaining.
UConn had its way in the paint from the jump, with Whaley and junior Josh Carlton — who turned 21 today — each picking up two quick buckets.
Despite the advantage down low, head coach Dan Hurley opted for a lot of four-guard lineups heavy on hand-off action, but UCF extended its defense and stagnated Husky ball movement, while Collin Smith hit some tough shots on the other end to keep it tight.
Plus UConn’s transition defense was awful early, with nobody stopping Ceasar DeJesus on several open UCF looks.
UConn responded and rattled off an 11-2 run thanks to five-straight forced turnovers. A lot of those turnovers came from strong ball-screen defense from Whaley, who has become a master at hedging and disrupting high screen sets. Call me a basketball nerd, but it’s beautiful to watch him move his feet and poke the ball out from guards’ hands.
UConn’s defense held UCF to a seven-minute stretch without a field goal at one point, but never led by more than seven. Heading into the half only up four, the Huskies needed to stop the ball better on transition defense while continuing to feast on the offensive glass, racking up seven offensive rebounds.
It was the Pork-chop Show to start the second half, with the breakout junior doing it all; dunks, dishes, blocks, help defense, you name it. After some smart dribble-penetration from redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert helped spur a 9-0 run, the game was blown wide open by the under 12 timeout.
Gilbert was masterful off the bench, picking his spots with poise to the tune of five assists and no turnovers.
Whaley’s activity on defense was infectious; the entire team got in on the fun with deflections, pokes, and tips. Leading by as much as 15, there was too much time on the clock for a UConn team so prone to lapses. But the Huskies lead never breached double-digits, and the nail in the coffin came after freshman Jalen Gaffney turned in a jelly reverse layup that had Hurley firing up the crowd. Vital and Whaley both exited with 1:11 remaining to standing ovations, the former’s last game in the XL Center.
This UCF team is a far cry from last year’s squad that gave Duke a heart attack in March, but they did march into the Queen City a week ago to hand Cincinnati a loss, and head coach Johnny Dawkins has never had a sub .500 team in Orlando.
Whaley’s energy and growing confidence is emblematic of this entire UConn roster; you can see the light starting to come on for all of these kids. When he wasn’t plugging his own podcast, commentator Seth Greenberg commended UConn — No. 64 in KenPom — for getting better everyday, and trending in the right direction come conference tournament time.
UConn will head to East Carolina next to take on the Pirates. Tip-off will be Sunday, March 1 at 2 p.m. ET.