In its final game of the calendar year, UConn men’s basketball entered a rock fight against St. John’s on Saturday night in the XL Center and came out victorious, 69-65, in a game that essentially came down to who made the last play.
For the first time this season, Dan Hurley’s squad was without Donovan Clingan. The sophomore center is out for 3-4 weeks with an ankle injury.
The first half was a major struggle for UConn. Somewhat surprisingly, Samson Johnson kept them going offensively, hitting a couple of shot-clock-beating baskets while adding some nice dunks early on. Otherwise, just about every other starter struggled — Alex Karaban, Tristen Newton, and Stephon Castle combined for just eight points in the first 20 minutes.
The Huskies trailed by six after a first half where they were out-rebounded 18-15. Defensively, St. John’s threw some press and zone their way. While this strategy didn’t lead to excessive turnovers, it did slow the Huskies down. Despite a solid 43 percent shooting effort in the first half and the game overall, UConn’s offense was out of sorts.
UConn came out inspired in the second half, though it became a bit of a ref show. The Huskies erased an eight-point deficit less than two minutes in thanks to a Spencer three-pointer, a Newton three-point play, and a Johnson dunk.
Castle returned to the starting lineup while Johnson made his first start of the season. The freshman went 0-for-3 in the first half with a turnover and also got his second foul 10 minutes in.
Though he didn’t start great, Castle got all of his scoring done in the home stretch. He hit a couple of free throws to get on the board, then got his first bucket on a put-back. He then managed a tough, driving lay-up that put the Huskies up four and then had a another big put-back to tie the game at 63 with 3:31 left.
Down the stretch, Castle had another fast-break lay-up to put them up four — a lead that the Huskies held on to with free throws. Newton did miss one to give the visitors one more chance down three, but their shot rimmed out, then Hassan Diarra grabbed the rebound and hit a free throw to score the final point and put the game out of reach.
Next up, the Huskies have some time off before they host DePaul on January 2nd at Gampel Pavilion. The game will tip off at 6:30 p.m. and will be televised on FS1.