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UConn men’s basketball outlasts VCU in OT, 70-63

Coming off two emotionally draining games, the Huskies did just enough to beat the Rams in a sloppy affair that went into overtime.

NCAA Basketball: VCU at Connecticut Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

UConn men’s basketball played its third game in as many days and its second overtime contest of the week, but still managed to overcome inconsistency and late mistakes in a 70-63 win to close out the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.

A far cry from the offensive fireworks that were on display in the game against Auburn, this one was ugly. VCU (3-4) prides itself on forcing teams to play messy, grind-it-out contests, and executed the strategy to near-perfection — the Rams rank No. 7 in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.

UConn (6-1) proved it is no slouch in this department either, matching the Rams’ toughness and intensity and doing enough to get the win despite a lackluster performance. This was the MTE’s third-place game, with Baylor beating Michigan State in the tournament final earlier.

Perhaps the biggest story of this game was the performance by fifth-year senior Isaiah Whaley, who missed UConn’s semifinal game against Michigan State due to a fainting incident directly after the Auburn win. He finished with 16 points while going 3-of-3 from deep and also put a punctuation mark on his day with a breakaway dunk for the game’s final points.

“He is our most important player,” Dan Hurley said after the game. “We didn’t start winning here [at UConn] until he battled his way into the rotation.”

The Huskies started off very slow, as has been the case in all three of their island games, falling 17-10 nine minutes in. VCU’s vaunted pressure defense was clearly bothering the Huskies, there were no easy buckets. Usually, UConn is the team that is meeting teams at the rim and sending shots back in the opposing team's face, but early on VCU was taking on this identity.

Adama Sanogo, who was the rock of UConn offensively for the past two games, only attempted one field goal in the first half. UConn wasn’t feeding Sanogo nearly as much as it has over the past few games. Credit to VCU throwing a lot of bodies at him and frustrating the big man. Levi Stockard III, who is able to match Sanogo’s size at 6-foot-8, 240 lbs, and the length of Hason Ward effectively took Sanogo out of the offensive game plan for much of this one. He finished with six points, seven rebounds, and three assists.

UConn’s defense helped it stay in the game, holding VCU without a field goal for almost a four-minute stretch, leading to a 7-1 run that brought the Huskies within one. Offensive rebounding and decent free throw shooting were holding UConn above water, but then the wheels completely fell off again.

After a RJ Cole three-pointer went down at the 7:52 mark of the first half, the Huskies did not hit another field goal until there were 45 seconds left. UConn also committed four turnovers in this span. The Rams were ahead by eight with 2:20 left in the first half. But more offensive rebounding, opportunistic scoring, and a foul called on VCU as RJ Cole heaved a three-quarter-court shot to help the Huskies cut the lead to two by halftime.

The second half was much of the same, as neither team ever seemed to get into a rhythm offensively and the game saw a lot of turnovers and fouls. Fourteen fouls were committed in the first ten minutes of the second half, eight by UConn and 6 by VCU. The Huskies finished with a dismal 22 turnovers, two days after giving it away 24 times against Auburn.

With ten minutes left, the game was tied at 41. It was anyone’s contest, but VCU seemed to be playing slightly better. The Rams were leading or tied the rest of regulation.

With just over a minute left, the Huskies down three, and Cole blanketed, UConn was in need of a hero. Isaiah Whaley responded to the call, hitting a massive three-point shot off of a rare post-pass from Sanogo to tie the game at 56. This score would hold after time expried even though UConn had a few chances to hit a game-winning bucket.

The overtime period incredibly started out with another Isaiah Whaley three. Whaley had come into this game 0-4 on the season from downtown but his shooting from deep was a huge difference-maker on this day.

Two more RJ Cole free throws after an ill-advised foul from VCU near half-court put UConn up 61-56 with 2:20 to go. The Huskies continued playing dogged defense in the extra period, holding VCU to 1-9 from the floor and limiting them to one offensive rebound. VCU’s only points in overtime came on three free throws made and a driving layup with seven seconds left. A heads-up inbounds pass by Jackson led to Whaley’s game-ending dunk.

Whaley couldn’t hold back his emotions after flushing it down to seal the win.

“When that play happened, all of the emotions of the whole time of us being here, games we fought hard in, just that play it felt good to fight hard to get the win out,” Whaley said.

This was a huge win for UConn to finish the three-game Bahamas trip 2-1 with wins over No. 19 Auburn and a very tough VCU squad. The loss to Michigan State hurts, but UConn didn’t have Isaiah Whaley and it’s pretty clear the fifth-year senior would have made a difference in that game. The Huskies have a lot to be proud of, but a lot to work on as well.

Next up, UConn is hosting Maryland-Eastern Shore at the XL Center, at 7 p.m. on December 1 in a game that will be televised on CBS Sports Network.

Observations

  • After scoring 48 points over the last two games, Adama Sanogo scored only six. Give credit to VCU’s defense not only on Sanogo but on UConn’s guards as well, not giving them any room to fit in a post-entry pass.
  • RJ Cole led all scorers with 26 points — the most points he has scored in a UConn jersey.
  • UConn was 8-8 from the free-throw line in overtime.
  • The game featured 42 total field goals made, 45 fouls, and 33 turnovers committed. Absolute Chaos.
  • Andre Jackson had a career-high 14 rebounds. He continues to make a case for being one of the best rebounding guards in the country, alongside Martin, and a key player for this team.
  • The Husky guards need to be better at taking care of the basketball, especially in late-game situations, especially against a press.
  • Free-throw shooting was a huge difference-maker. UConn went 23-28 (82.1%) from the charity stripe, compared to VCU’s 14-24 (58.3%). As a team, the Huskies have shot over 70% from the free-throw line in all but one game thus far.