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Takeaways from UConn men’s basketball’s loss to St. John’s

The Huskies were in control for most of the game but came up short.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Despite being in the driver’s seat for most of the game, UConn was unable to extend their winning streak to five games, losing to St. John’s 74-70 at Gampel Pavilion. The loss dropped the Huskies to 7-2 on the season and 5-2 in Big East play. Here are some takeaways from the Huskies’ first loss in 2021.

R.J. Cole steps up offensively

Ryan Goodman: It’s not news to UConn fans that RJ Cole has been struggling on the offensive end this season with per-game averages of 9.6 points and 3.8 assists on an abysmal 31.9% from the floor. When Bouknight went down with the elbow injury, UConn’s offense was immediately surrounded by question marks on who would step up and take on some of the scoring load that Bouknight shoulders each game. Many eyes were on Cole, the dynamic transfer point guard from Howard who scored over 1,500 points in his first two years with the Bison, to finally show what he’s capable of. It was ultimately Tyler Polley and Tyrese Martin who stepped up in this department against Butler and Marquette, with a combined 57 points over that two-game stretch, helping the Huskies secure victories. Today, though, it was Cole who came alive and led the team in scoring with 18 points on 6-15 shooting.

Coming out of the gate scorching hot, Cole started off 4-5 from long range in the game’s first eight minutes. It was a welcome sight for UConn fans, who had been waiting for Cole to have one of these games. He’s not going to start off every game that hot but if he can provide the Huskies with another legitimate scoring threat next to Polley and Martin, the prospects of playing Bouknight-less basketball look much less scary.

Dan Madigan: In terms of his performance on both ends, this was probably Cole’s best game of the season. His 3-point shot is starting to fall, and while he still isn’t hitting a ton of shots inside the arc, he’s looking more comfortable in this offense. I’ve also been extremely impressed with his defensive skills and motor — he’s been a lockdown defender from day one, even if he struggles on offense. There’s no doubt he’s a talented scorer, and he’s still making a huge adjustment from being the No. 1 option at Howard to playing second fiddle on offense to Bouknight for top tier Big East school with a wonky pandemic schedule after sitting out all last year. It’s going to take some time for Cole to really settle in, but this game was for sure a step in the right direction.

Sanogo silent down the stretch

Luke Swanson: UConn forward Adama Sanogo was the Huskies’ most potent offensive weapon in the first half, showing off an impressive array of post moves on his way to 12 points on 6-11 shooting, grabbing four boards and adding two assists to his rapidly-growing game. But the big man was mostly non-existent in the second half. Why? According to Hurley, St. John’s decision to go small and start chucking from beyond the arc forced his hand, and with Sanogo’s size, he would have been ineffective on defense.

That’s one side of the story, but there’s another reality where Hurley leaves his best offensive player on the day in and trusts his best five players, forcing the Johnnies’ hand. Whaley didn’t have the best offensive game of his career either, and with Bouknight out for at least another few weeks, the Huskies will have to take offense anywhere they can get it, even if it’s from a big man who can’t necessarily switch on all five positions. They lost the game anyways, so what’s the worst that could have happened?

Madigan: Sanogo not playing much at all in the second half is really hard to fathom, even after Hurley’s postgame comments. He was a force down low for every second he was on the court, and I was thoroughly impressed with his array of post moves, which included shots with both hands and multiple pivots stacked on top of one another. Even though all of his shots didn’t drop, he was still effective as a scorer and on the boards, and I think he could of continued to make an impact in the second half, even against St. John’s smaller lineup.

Ryan Goodman: This was easily Sanogo’s best game as a Husky. He showcased extremely nimble footwork around the basket and converted tough hook shots with both his dominant and nondominant hands. Flashes of what made him a top sixty recruit in the nation were on full display in this one.

After Cole hit a floater with just under 13 minutes left in the game to put UConn up 49-41, it felt like the Huskies were potentially about to blow the game open. They had all the momentum on their side and were playing as a complete unit. However, Sanogo never returned to the game from this point on as St. John’s then went with a five-guard lineup at the 10:40 mark. As Luke pointed out earlier, Hurley was concerned with Sanogo being exposed by the Johnnies quicker and faster guards. However, the liability goes in both directions to an extent, as this was something UConn could’ve potentially taken advantage of on the offensive end. Also, Sanogo actually did fairly well guarding Julian Champagnie - the Big East’s leading scorer - on a couple of possessions. He swatted Champagnie’s shot and helped cause an additional turnover during another defensive sequence. And not for nothing, but Champagnie actually had his most effective stretch of the game in the last 8 minutes when he scored eight of his twelve points, while Sanogo was buried on the bench.

When UConn was sputtering down the stretch a bit, I would have liked to see Sanogo injected back into the lineup. I hope he gets some burn in late-game situations more often, especially when he’s playing as well as he was.

At least the uniforms were pretty sweet, right?

Luke: UConn took the floor in their clean 1995 throwback uniforms on Monday, conveniently available to purchase at the UConn fan shop for $84.95. The jerseys hammered home how much better the “Connecticut” wordmark is than the stylized “UCONN” font, and the shorts highlighted just how out of place the vertical wordmark looks on their regular home and away uniforms. I will also maintain, as long as I’m a UConn fan, that giving up the goofy white Jonathan for his pissed-off, wolf-looking cousin was a massive downgrade.

Madigan: The uniforms were sweet, and sent me on a big nostalgia trip. It is so good to be back in the Big East, even with these losses to St. John’s. Hoping we can see some road blue throwbacks at some point this year, but maybe I am being greedy.