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No. 1 UConn men’s basketball outlasts Providence, 74-65

It was far from pretty, but the Huskies won their ninth straight game.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

It was a physical battle inside Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday night but No. 1 UConn men’s basketball survived Providence, 74-65.

Stephon Castle led the team with a career-high 20 points, scoring 11 of them over seven minutes to open the second half as he nearly single-handedly built the lead to which the Huskies would hold through the final buzzer. Tristen Newton added a double-double (16 points, 11 rebounds), while Cam Spencer (15 points, seven rebounds) and Alex Karaban (12 points) were also in double figures.

UConn sputtered to start offensively. Castle made two jumpers in the paint to get a 3-for-4 start from the field for the Huskies, but they didn’t take a shot for nearly two-and-a-half minutes after that because of turnovers and offensive rebounds on the other end by Providence.

Making matters worse for the home side, Donovan Clingan lasted just four minutes before committing his second foul, stapling him to the bench until the half. In contrast, Samson Johnson committed his second foul with 10:45 left and missed just 14 seconds the rest of the half, though he returned after Karaban turned his ankle and went right to the locker room, leaving the options of either playing a center with two fouls, inserting freshman Jaylin Stewart or going five out.

The Friars took advantage of their hosts’ offensive disarray to build a 10-0 run on four Husky turnovers and three offensive rebounds. Former UConn guard Corey Floyd Jr. was a catalyst for this spurt that put his team up six, adding four points, a pair of offensive rebounds and a steal.

Providence got ahead by as much as eight, but Josh Oduro, who was at six points and five rebounds, committed his second foul with 11:09 remaining and his team up six. Kim English removed his center for backup Rafael Castro, who plays less than 10 minutes per game.

Johnson had an advantage in the battle of backup bigs and the Huskies began to chip away at the deficit, though Oduro returned less than three minutes later. His return was short-lived — he committed his third foul with 6:38 left in the first half.

The Huskies brought the deficit to one on multiple occasions, with the Gampel Pavilion crowd ready to burst once its team re-took the lead, but Providence prevented it until Karban, fresh off the bench, drilled UConn’s first 3-pointer with 3:17 to go, creating a 25-24 lead. The Friars responded with a bucket of their own, but Spencer nailed another triple to put his team up two.

Despite each team’s reputation as a strong in the paint defensively, the offenses found plenty of success down low. Of the 57 points scored in the first half, 36 were in the paint and it took until Oduro from the left corner 12:58 into the game for the first made 3-pointer.

Clingan got whistled for his third foul just 18 seconds into the second half and while Dan Hurley was willing to keep his center in for a while with his team up 29-28, it took just 1:52 for him to be whistled for his fourth. Hurley did not like it and more than earned a technical foul after the call. Oduro joined him in the four-foul club with 16:48 to go and Castro made it a trio with nearly 14 minutes to go, forcing Providence to play small with no other players taller than 6-foot-7.

The referees were very tight on the whistle in the second half. They called four technical fouls, including one on each head coach, and both teams were in the bonus just eight minutes in. Overall, 31 fouls were called in the half with 48 for the game.

Each team was struggling offensively, but Providence didn’t have anyone step up and perform like Castle. The biggest issue was free throws: The Friars were 11-for-22 from the charity stripe, leaving critical points on the floor when the Huskies were ahead by a thin margin

This trend lasted until the final moments of the game. Castle hit both ends of an and-one for a four-point advantage with 13:53 to go. From then, the Huskies’ lead never sunk below four and never got larger than eight until the final seconds. Whenever Providence got close, UConn did enough to keep the visitors from getting to within one possession.

Clingan, who played nine minutes in the second half on four fouls, made an impact defensively as the Friars tried to get to within one possession inside the final minute. He impacted a driving Devin Carter layup try, then blocked Oduro which allowed Spencer to secure the defensive rebound that sealed it.

UConn (19-2, 9-1 Big East) is now halfway through the conference season and will begin the back half of the schedule on Saturday on the road against St. John’s. Tip-off at Madison Square Garden is set for 12 p.m. on FOX.