An uptick in offensive tempo and some hot shooting late from RJ Cole led the way as UConn men’s basketball beat Xavier 80-72 at the Cintas Center in Cincinnati on Saturday.
Coming into the game, head coach Dan Hurley wanted more energy and desperation. Akok Akok did exactly that in his return to the floor after missing nearly a month with a shin injury. He checked in and immediately sank a long two-pointer that gave UConn (9-5, 6-5 Big East) what it needed to take off.
“It’s important that Akok that now he’s healthy enough to get minutes,” Hurley said post-game. “For the future of what we’re building, he’s an important guy.”
Cole led the offense in all facets Saturday. He was unconscious from three down the stretch, making 5-7 and dropping a season-high 23 points. The redshirt junior appeared to gain confidence with the ball in his hands, lighting it up from deep and dishing seven assists in the win.
Isaiah Whaley and Tyrese Martin brought the stifling defense that UConn has been sorely lacking in its last five games with a combined 17 rebounds, six blocks and two steals on the day. They were no slouches on offense, either, with Martin dropping 15 points and Whaley putting up 12. Both players hit two free throws in the final minutes to seal the key victory as well.
The rest of the rotation — Jalen Gaffney, Tyler Polley, Andre Jackson and Adama Sanogo — all contributed as well. Polley hit a couple of key 3-pointers and finished with 10 points while Jackson helped boost the energy early but was hampered by foul trouble late in the game. Sanogo returned to his rebounding ways with eight boards in each of the last two games. In his second straight start, Gaffney dished a couple of assists and hit a three as well.
“The greatest team builder is care, is caring about each other, is caring about winning, is caring about team,” Hurley said before adding that the team held a team meeting after the Seton Hall loss.
Whaley elaborated on the team meeting, saying that they used to better define each player’s role.
The Huskies stumbled out of the gate and quickly found themselves behind 11-2 deficit before Akok returned to springboard UConn back into the lead. It played at one of their highest tempos yet and finished the half up 38-32.
Cole put up 12 first-half points off the bench for UConn, shooting 4-8 and 2-4 from three while dishing five assists. Akok added seven points of his own in the first half as well. UConn got scoring from every member of the rotation, which was key against a Xavier team that really only had Zach Freemantle and Paul Scruggs contributing offensively.
UConn did not relinquish their 36-32 first-half lead, winning by a final score of 80-72. Cole’s shooting kept Xavier down and they played especially strong defense to seal it. The Huskies nearly lost a 14-point lead at the end of the game due to some poor free-throw shooting but held on long enough.
The Huskies needed exactly the performance that they got today. Coming into Saturday, UConn lost 4-of-5 and looked fairy lost on the court. That continued for the first few minutes but quickly flipped in UConn’s favor.
The uptempo offense suited their play style better and kept them from settling for threes late in the shot clock. They attacked the basket when they needed to and found open shooters. It was a nearly complete performance against a quad-1 opponent.
UConn’s next game will be on Feb. 16 at home against Providence at 6:30 p.m.on FS1.