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UConn men’s basketball earns gritty OT win over St. John’s, 86-78

The Huskies were ahead most of the night before it got close late, then they pulled ahead big in overtime.

The UConn men’s basketball team showed remarkable resilience Wednesday night in a gutsy 86-78 overtime victory over the St. John’s Red Storm. The Huskies improve to 11-4 on the season and 2-2 in the Big East.

Sophomore Adama Sanogo put forth a monstrous effort, scoring a team-high 26 points while snagging a career-high 17 rebounds and also swatting six shots. RJ Cole was a maestro as well, with 19 points, eight assists, and just two turnovers. Andre Jackson and Tyrese Martin had 11 points apiece, while defensive anchor Isaiah Whaley chipped in five blocks of UConn’s 14 total blocked shots.

Though Cole kept his turnovers down, the Huskies had 16 on the game, including nine in the first half. UConn also struggled at the free-throw line and had a nearly five-minute scoreless stretch in the second half, allowing St. John’s back into a game that it looked like the Huskies had in hand.

Nevertheless, it was a much-needed win. After Saturday’s polarizing loss to Seton Hall, the onus was on the Huskies to bounce back. It wasn’t necessarily emphatic, and questions still remain about UConn’s ability to put opponents away, but Dan Hurley and his squad earned an important win.

The Big East’s leading scorer Julian Champagnie poured in 27 points, but UConn held Posh Alexander and Dylan Addae-Wusu — two Johnnies that average 15 and 10 points per game respectively — to eight of 24 from the field.

The start of the game was hectic and lacking in offense. St. John’s was getting blocked a lot and UConn turned it over on its first three possessions. You wouldn’t think it was a matchup of the Big East’s top two scoring offenses to start. The turnovers led to a rough start, but UConn’s bench flashed through, with a strong take from Jalen Gaffney as well as treys from Tyler Polley and Jordan Hawkins. But UConn had no answer for Champagnie.

Gampel finally woke up after two straight transition buckets: a monster dunk from Jackson and a pretty floater from a trailing Sanogo. But sloppy ball-handling from the Huskies and Champagnie’s nose for the bucket kept the Red Storm around. UConn finished the half with nine turnovers and could never extend their lead past five, leading 36-31 at the break.

For as sloppy as UConn looked, it seemed if they continued to control the pace— St. John’s ranks third in the country in tempo — and clean up the turnovers, they would begin to pull away. Threes from Jackson and Cole helped UConn gain some much-needed separation in the second half.

UConn started rolling, stretching their lead to as much as 11. The Johnnies had no answer for Sanogo, while Cole continued to make plays on offense and defense, including taking four charges.

Foul trouble for Cole and Martin halted UConn’s momentum, and St. John’s was able to hang around amid a four-minute Husky scoring drought. While the offense was stuck in neutral, UConn’s defense kept them in the game thanks in part to the block party Sanogo and Whaley were having.

Sanogo’s fifth block and a Cole three in transition brought the lead back to double-digits with 6:19 to play, and the rout appeared to be on. But within three minutes, the Red Storm trimmed UConn’s lead to two after a pair of back-to-back threes.

Every time UConn looked ready to ice the game, Champagnie would hit a timely bucket. The script was playing right into St. John’s hands— all the Red Storm had to do was hang around and disrupt the game enough until the shots fell.

For a brief moment, it looked like UConn was surely going to lose this one.

Stamford’s native Aaron Wheeler banged in a three and UConn found itself up just one with 47 ticks left. A front-rimmed three from Cole gave the Johnnies a chance to win it with 35.3 seconds remaining. Wheeler missed a wide-open three, but Sanogo only made the front end of his freebies after grabbing the rebound. Then Champagnie (who else?) came down and buried a three in UConn’s face— for St. John’s first lead since it was 20-18.

The Huskies were down one with 4.1 left. It looked over. A disappointing loss that would send the UConn fan base reeling.

But then Cole found a cutting Martin, who attempted a layup and seemed to be trying to draw contact but didn’t get the foul call and missed the layup. Sanogo was able to collect the rebound and draw the foul, sending him to the line with a chance to tie or win.

Sanogo hit the first, tying the game at 71, but missed the backend from the charity stripe, sending the game to overtime.

With both teams running on adrenaline in overtime, the Huskies again stayed ahead most of the way. Two Sanogo free throws with 1:40 to play gave UConn a six-point lead before Jackson, who had thrived in transition all overtime, capped off an 11-0 run with a transition lay-up. The end of overtime was far less dramatic than the final minutes of regulation, thankfully.

You can look at this game in two different ways. It’s incredibly frustrating to watch this team build a sizeable lead and then keep opponents hanging around. Yet at the same time, Hurley and company took St. John’s best shot and stayed upright, finishing the game on a 15-5 run. The team has two guys playing at an All-Big East First Team level right now in Sanogo and Cole. Whether you’re an optimist or pessimist, the season remains in front of UConn heading into a softer portion of the schedule. Nobody remembers January’s close calls in March. The Huskies can absolutely build off of this win.

Next up for the Huskies is a quick jaunt to Rhode Island on Saturday to take on Providence at 2:30 p.m. Or so we hope...