No. 4 UConn men’s basketball clamped down and did the little things when it mattered inside Hinkle Fieldhouse on Friday night, as the Huskies erased a 7-point halftime deficit and left Indianapolis with an 88-81 win over Butler.
Cam Spencer, who was just 1-for-5 from beyond the arc in the first half, finished with 14 points and had the biggest 20-second stretch of the game with less than 90 seconds to go. With his team up four, he secured an offensive rebound through multiple Bulldogs, then called timeout before he fell out of bounds along the baseline. With the shot clock winding down on the ensuing possession, he knocked down a 3-pointer with a fading shot clock that proved to be the game-winner.
Spencer was one of four Huskies in double figures, along with Alex Karaban, who paced his team with 20 points on 7-for-10 shooting, Stephon Castle (14 points, nine rebounds) and Tristen Newton (15 points, five assists)
It was a sluggish start for UConn on both ends. The offense was unsteady and stagnant, as Butler employed the strategy often used on Andre Jackson last season, sagging off of Castle when he handled the ball on the outside. This made spacing difficult and helped lead to a 2-for-6 start from the field.
On the other side, the Bulldogs were able to get inside early, with their first three makes coming from inside the paint, then they stepped outside and hit two 3-pointers in a row, opening up a six-point lead that got the Hinkle Fieldhouse crowd into it.
However, it woke up the Huskies too. Karaban knocked down an open 3-pointer on the left wing on the ensuing possession, then Samson Johnson took a lob and delivered a slam dunk as part of a prolonged 7-0 burst to give the team its first lead.
One point would be as big of an advantage UConn got in the initial 20 minutes. The teams traded buckets through the middle stages of the second half, but live-ball turnovers prevented the Huskies from getting any offensive rhythm. Butler had seven steals in the first half, which fed into nine UConn turnovers, off of which the Bulldogs scored 13 points. The Huskies had just four turnovers in the second half.
A DJ Davis 3-pointer put the hosts up eight points and capped off a 9-0 run with 6:34 remaining and that again seemed to create urgency in the Huskies. Castle scooped up a loose ball and grabbed a lay-up to break the run, and they brought the deficit back to five.
From there, it was two steps forward, and one step back. Jaylin Stewart snagged an offensive rebound, spun around his defender and laid it in to get his team to within three with just over a minute to go. On UConn’s next possession, an ill-advised pass by Karaban from the top of the key through the paint led to another live-ball turnover and after a score on the fast break, Butler led by seven, which was a lead it maintained into the half.
UConn had an even 1.0 points per possession in the first half and had a respectable 46.4 percent shooting percentage, but turned the ball over on more than a quarter of its possessions, which is well above Butler’s pregame rate of 16.9 percent.
The second half started much better for the Huskies. Spencer scored inside to get the first points, then he and Castle each recorded steals and scored lay-ups on the other end to bring the difference to 46-43. Castle converted both ends of an and-one to tie the ballgame on the next possession and Karaban drilled another 3-pointer from the left wing for UConn’s first lead since 23-22 with 8:33 remaining in the first half. The redshirt sophomore would deliver again on a deep shot with 12:07 left to give the Huskies a four-point lead.
UConn’s resurgence didn’t deter the hosts, which did just enough to hold on and stay within striking distance, even as the Huskies hit six straight field goals and 10 of 11 over a nearly eight-minute stretch between 12:40 and 4:50. In the same stretch, Butler was just 5-for-10. The Huskies briefly pushed their advantage to as high as eight points, but their advantage otherwise was rarely more than two possessions.
The Huskies (13-2, 3-1 Big East) are off until Wednesday when they travel to Cincinnati, Ohio to play Xavier. Tip-off from Cintas Center is at 8:30 p.m. on FS1.