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No. 4 UConn men’s basketball takes down Xavier, 80-75

The Huskies survived a beating on the boards and a late comeback attempt to secure their second straight road win.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Xavier Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

No. 4 UConn men’s basketball survived a battle at Xavier, coming out on top 80-75, but not without some bloodshed. The Huskies (14-2, 4-1 Big East) picked up the win despite a late scare from Xavier and the Musketeers holding a 42-30 rebounding advantage.

UConn came out hot from the start, looking like the much better team early, hitting its first four 3-point attempts and adding a jumper from Cam Spencer to take a 14-6 lead in the first four minutes. The Huskies rode their hot start from three for most of the first half, shooting 6-8 from beyond the arc in the first 10 minutes while Xavier had yet to attempt a 3-pointer.

However, the Xavier frontcourt took advantage of a smaller Huskies frontcourt still missing sophomore big Donovan Clingan. Musketeers bigs Abou Ousmane and Gytis Nemeiksa scored 10 of Xavier’s 24 first-half points in the paint as Samson Johnson and Alex Karaban dealt with a major size disadvantage. Johnson also dealt with foul trouble.

Despite the struggles down low, UConn maintained its lead for most of the first 20 minutes before an 8-0 run from the home team tied things up at 35 with three minutes remaining. The Huskies managed to punch back with a floater in the lane from Johnson to stop the bleeding and Stephon Castle added two more buckets to help the Huskies go into halftime with a four-point lead.

After shooting just 2-9 from three in the first half, Xavier started the second half with a hot shooting start. Nemeiksa immediately cut the UConn lead to one with a three, and then Desmond Claude tied things up at 44 just over a minute in.

UConn managed to answer again on a pair of dunks from Castle and Johnson, but the Musketeers didn’t back down. Two free throws from Claude and a 3-pointer from Trey Green — Xavier’s fourth made 3-pointer in as many attempts — gave X its first lead of the night at the under-16 timeout.

From there, UConn relied on its experienced backcourt to overcome the team’s problems in the post.

Newton answered Green’s three with a long-distance call of his own, then tacked on another one minute later. Hassan Diarra followed suit with four-straight points to propel a 10-0 run and give UConn a 61-52 lead with 11:53 to play.

Five minutes later, it was Diarra again who kept the Huskies ahead. The senior guard parted the Xavier defense for an easy transition layup, then hit a three on the next possession. The Huskies added four more points to stretch the lead to 74-60 with 5:39 remaining — UConn’s largest lead of the night.

While Newton carried the offense for stretches with a 16-point, 11-assist performance and Cam Spencer led the Huskies with 19 points, no one came up bigger in the second half than Diarra. He scored all 11 of his points in the second half and is now shooting 75 percent from three (6-8) in January. Castle (12 points, eight assists, five rebounds) was the fifth Husky in double figures.

Xavier made things interesting late, mounting a 9-0 run thanks to some wickedly-timed fouls and turnovers to get within three points with 15 seconds remaining, but Newton salvaged the Huskies’ awful free throw shooting night (11-24) with two makes with five seconds remaining to secure the victory.

Up next, UConn returns home to take on Georgetown at home at the XL Center on Sunday, January 14 for a noon tip-off. With every team in the top five of the AP poll except UConn already losing this week, a win against the Hoyas would give the Huskies an inside track at the school’s first in-season No. 1 ranking since the 2008-09 season.