Dan Hurley’s teams always bring defensive pressure. As an intense coach, his players mirror that personality on the court, manifesting in strong play on the defensive end.
“You can’t stray away from our defensive identity. That’s who we are as a team, that’s who we are as a group,” RJ Cole said postgame. “Continuing to harp on that every day, we have to continue to do that.”
Headed into the game, UConn was 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, surrendering 95.2 points per 100 possessions. This includes a 45.6% effective field goal percentage, good for No. 22 in the country, and 42.8% on 2-pointers, which is No. 6 in the land.
In the Huskies’ first meeting with Seton Hall at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, UConn turned in arguably its worst defensive performance of the season, allowing Seton Hall to score 1.22 points per possession and shoot 54.8% on 2-pointers, leading to a 90-87 overtime loss for the Huskies.
UConn was better when they welcomed Seton Hall to Gampel Pavilion in February, surrendering 1.03 points per possession and allowing a 44.7 field goal percentage from inside the arc. The stingier defense helped the Huskies to a 70-65 victory in the rematch.
However, Thursday night was UConn’s signature performance on the defensive end. In terms of pure points, Seton Hall did not break 50 until the final minute, while the Huskies surrendered just 0.87 points per possession and allowed 35.1% on 2-pointers. Myles Cale and Kadary Richmond accounted for 31 of the Pirates’ 52 points.
Jared Rhoden, one of the Pirates’ key contributors offensively, with a 24.9% usage rate this season, was held to seven points on 2 of 13 shooting in 33 minutes, largely as a result of Tyrese Martin’s efforts.
“[Rhoden] was a big factor on us for their offense, to make sure that we stopped him. Coming into this game, that was something I took personal tonight and I went out there and did that,” Martin said.
The defense was even better in the first half, as Seton Hall had 18 points on 25% shooting, and continued until the pace got a little more frenetic late in the second half as the Pirates tried to come back from a double-digit deficit, leading to nearly half of its points in the final 10 minutes.
The Huskies had seven blocks, led by four from Isaiah Whaley, and five steals, including two each from Tyrese Martin and Andre Jackson.
“I think we made just everything really hard on them. At the rim, we made everything challenging on them,” head coach Dan Hurley said.
This has been UConn’s MO all season. While the team’s offense is ranked higher than defense in adjusted efficiency on KenPom, the team feeds off its defensive performance and has lost twice, in its road games against Villanova and Seton Hall, when the games got into track meets, as both teams shot above 47% from the field.
The Huskies are now 9-1 when their opponents’ field goal percentage is 36% or below, with the only loss to Michigan State, sans Whaley. This trend extends to 15-4 when it’s under 40%. In these games, the team can use missed shots, rebound and get out in transition for easy buckets.
As UConn’s defense goes, the team goes. That showed on Thursday and will be a trend to watch through the rest of the Big East Tournament and beyond.