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No. 24 UConn men’s basketball defeats Xavier, 72-61

The Huskies relied on a scorching first half and some clutch baskets from RJ Cole to get a big win.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The No. 24 UConn men’s basketball team dispatched the Xavier Musketeers, 72-61, on Saturday afternoon, thanks to a red-hot first half and some steady play from senior point guard RJ Cole. The Huskies improve to 19-7 overall, 10-5 in the Big East, and are now in sole possession of third place in the conference.

Cole and Tyler Polley paced UConn with 16 points apiece, while Adama Sanogo added 15 points and nine rebounds. It was a tale of two halves for the Huskies; a near-perfect first half followed by a mistake-ridden second half with 14 turnovers. UConn outrebounded Xavier 42-26, but ceded the Muskies 20 points off of turnovers.

Five straight empty trips to open the game temporarily tamed a raucous, sold-out Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies tried to establish the post early, but Xavier did a good job sending help to Sanogo. The fans were into it from the opening tip, but it seemed like the team was still getting warmed up.

The first U-C-O-N-N chant came after a Polley and-one to cap off an 11-2 spurt. The super senior broke out of his 9-for-29 3-point shooting slump with 11 first-half points on a perfect 4-4 from the field. A Sanogo steal and slam, followed by three straight buckets from the star sophomore, helped UConn stretch its lead.

Led by a rowdy James Bouknight, who was sitting courtside before he was asked to leave, Gampel was a madhouse.

Polley hitting from outside really opened up the offense. Sanogo had noticeably more space inside to get easy looks. From there, UConn’s offense flowed as it has rarely flowed all season. The Huskies rolled into the break on a 14-2 run to build a 17-point advantage at halftime.

In the second half, Cole picked up his third foul quickly, and the turnovers started piling up. Xavier trimmed the deficit to four.

A Cole floater and Hawkins three gave UConn and a tense crowd some much-needed relief. At the under-eight timeout, the Huskies held a nine-point lead that felt precarious at best. Sure enough, the Huskies found themselves up five with five minutes to play thanks to a sputtering offense and downhill attacking from Adam Kunkel and Colby Jones.

It turned into the RJ Cole show from there, with the senior delivering four straight crucial buckets when nothing was really working on offense. After some questionable Xavier shot selection down the stretch, the likes of Cole, Polley, Whaley, and Hawkins hit enough free throws to close out the game. Despite only two field goal attempts from Sanogo in the second half, Cole and UConn’s team defense stepped up to avoid disaster.

It’s never fun to give back a lead that was as big as 18, but Xavier is No. 24 in NET for a reason and they were fighting to save their season. Travis Steele threw in some 2-2-1 press that completely bamboozled a Cole-less UConn backcourt.

Beyond that bizarre 10-minute stretch to start the second half, this was a good day for UConn. Some teams would fold after losing a big lead, but Cole and company kept their composure and held on for the win.

Next up, the Huskies take on No. 10 Villanova on Tuesday, with tip-off coming at 8 p.m. at the XL Center.