The No. 15 UConn men’s basketball team returned from Newark, New Jersey with a 10-point victory over St. Bonaventure on Saturday to rebound from a road defeat at West Virginia on Wednesday. Here are some takeaways from the Huskies’ bounce back win.
The team is learning
Shawn McGrath: The Huskies took a 51-48 lead at West Virginia when Jordan Hawkins made a pair of free throws with 4:00 remaining in the contest. UConn scored just once the rest of the way, turning the ball over twice and shooting 1-8 from the field. It was the team’s first true road game since March 8, 2020 against Tulane and three of the eight players that entered the game for Dan Hurley, including two starters, have never played in a hostile environment, with a trip to raucous Morgantown being a hell of a trial by fire.
They floundered down the stretch in that one and while it was certainly a majority-UConn crowd inside Prudential Center on Saturday, the St. Bonaventure fans more than made themselves heard and it felt like a true neutral site game with large contingents on both sides.
But this time, it was the Huskies that shut the door on a close game. UConn was out to a 13-point lead with 8:00 to go, but the closest that the Bonnies would be able to reach was five, doing so for the final time with 1:57 to go. Rather than lose offensive composure and scramble with a rapidly decreasing lead, Jalen Gaffney was fouled on that next possession and hit both ends of the three-point play, while on UConn’s next opportunity with the ball, Tyler Polley hit a three-pointer from the wing inside 45 seconds to go, securing the win.
A pair of upperclassmen hit some big shots to put a neutral-site game away that could be huge when the NCAA Tournament committee starts to seed teams in March and the Huskies will need to close out close games throughout Big East play.
The Akok Akok Game
McGrath: Akok Akok had a promising redshirt freshman season that was derailed by an Achilles injury and after being given limited minutes in his return last year, has played more of a role this year, especially in the wake of Sanogo’s abdominal injury, when he was inserted into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-9 forward played well against weaker competition in Grambling State, but was a non-factor offensively against West Virginia, with just two points on 1-5 shooting in 31 minutes, though he did have 10 rebounds.
That was not the case on Saturday, when he played 34 minutes and was 5-6 from the field, including 2-2 from beyond the arc, hitting a pair of wide-open shots from the right corner in the first half, the first of which broke a tie and the second of which put UConn up five, as neither team was able to pull away from the other throughout the early going.
Akok is a unique player that can guard the rim and make an impact inside on the defensive end with shot-blocking, but also has the range to hit outside shots, as he is 8-13 on 3-point shots this season to go along with 15 blocks, which is second on the team behind only Isaiah Whaley, who has played 76 more minutes than Akok.
While Hurley said that Sanogo has a chance to return on Saturday against Providence and will likely return before the end of the calendar year, a productive and confident Akok off the bench will be a very valuable piece for the Huskies, especially if teams continue to lose him on the perimeter, as St. Bonaventure did.
Dan Madigan: Akok Akok is a human eraser — it is unbelievable how much his presence on the court disrupts opponents’ offensive game plan, especially when he’s paired alongside Isaiah Whaley to form arguably the best defensive front court in the nation. Even though St. Bonaventure goes up against an elite defender in his own right in Osun Osunniyi, the Bonnies avoided the paint at all costs when Akok was in the middle, and when they didn’t, he seemingly altered every shot around the rim.
We probably won’t see a lot of Akok and Whaley together once Sanogo comes back, but this duo overpowered the Bonnies on both ends, and it’s something the Huskies could certainly do pretty easily against the lower-tier Big East schools.
RJ Cole can score whenever he wants
Madigan: There wasn’t really any doubt before Saturday, but RJ Cole is key cog to the Huskies’ offense. Time and time again, he’s been able to hit big shots this season to keep UConn in games or put them away. He led the team with 15 points in the win over the Bonnies in his home state of New Jersey, and while the threes didn’t fall, he still was able to manufacture offense by getting to the line (4-6 on free throws) and finding open teammates with three assists. While Cole certainly has help — three of UConn’s seven other players had 10 or more points — Cole has become the alpha dog in this offense to bail the Huskies out when they need it, and serves as this team’s emotional leader.