Minus Clingan, UConn holds off St. John’s

HARTFORD – After a rough week, which saw an ugly loss at Seton Hall, an injury to his star center and a nearly two-and-a-half-hour slugfest with St. John’s, UConn coach Dan Hurley found himself in the holiday mood after the Huskies held on for dear life and beat the Red Storm Saturday night.

On his way to the locker room, Hurley celebrated UConn’s 69-65 win by raising both arms in the air and screaming “Merry Christmas!” to the crowd. He then hugged family members, gave out a few high fives to fans and posed for several selfies.

He knew what the impact of a second straight loss would’ve been on the rowdy 15,684 in attendance at the XL Center, plus the team’s supporters watching at home.

“We obviously saved Christmas for a lot of people in Connecticut,” Hurley said. “What I am most happy about is that we saved Christmas for ourselves and for our great fans in the state of Connecticut. A loss here tonight would’ve brought a lot of doom and gloom.”

Prior to the game, UConn announced Donovan Clingan will miss at least 3-4 weeks due to a tendon injury in his right foot suffered Wednesday. His absence was immediately apparent. The Huskies were not able to create their usual space on the perimeter when Clingan sets screens at the top of the key. And, obviously, his 7-foot-2 presence in the paint deters opponents from even attempting to enter the paint.

But the Huskies fought hard, nonetheless. Samson Johnson received the start in Clingan’s place and held his own against one of the top centers in the Big East in Joel Soriano, even outscoring him 16-14. Johnson battled through foul trouble and played a career-high 29:59, with his point total of 16 a career-high, as well. After scoring 11 points in 12 games last season, the junior has already scored in double digits four times this season.

“I’m so proud,” Hurley said. “I don’t think I’ve been prouder of a guy stepping in for such a critical piece. If he didn’t play like that, we would have had no chance because he played against one of the best big guys in the country and won the matchup.”

“I just wanted to make all of the right plays,” Johnson said. “The staff has always believed in me.”

It was a physical battle on the court with the teams combining for 42 fouls and 52 free throw attempts. Multiple times in the second half the game went consecutive possessions with fouls called. While it was not the style of play UConn would’ve preferred, it was one the team had to adapt to. Hurley was happy with how they adjusted.

“We’ve already proved we could win the beauty pageant when the game is not allowed to be as physical as these (Big East) games are,” Hurley said. “The Big East games, man, are so physical and it’s going to be that way for the next 18 games, and I thought we showed a tremendous resolve and resilience with how we responded today. We showed a championship response to how we played the other day.

“These games in this league, they become cage fights.”

Cam Spencer registered 15 points and five rebounds for UConn. Early in the second half with St. John’s leading by eight, Spencer hit a three, then recorded a steal and fed Tristen Newton (15 points, nine rebounds, six assists) for a lay-up and a foul, leading to a raucous celebration in the stands and a loud one between the two UConn leaders.

Glenn Taylor and Newton then exchanged words and light shoves, and Spencer turned to the stands and waved his arms in the air like a WWE wrestler trying to rile up a crowd.

That sequence highlighted a 10-0 run which gave the Huskies the lead again. Hurley was more than fine with how the sequence played out.

“We need players to interact with the crowd when they make big shots or when players are shooting free throws,” Hurley said. “We need them to ignite the crowd and really try to create that home court advantage. It got loud in there late in the game. The crowd responds to the personality of the players. And they certainly respond to a guy like Cam.”

“This is a tough crowd to go against,” noted St. John’s coach Rick Pitino, who was booed heavily in the pregame introductions.

With 17 seconds left, Chris Ledlum had a chance to tie the game for the Red Storm at the foul line but missed both attempts while fighting extreme noise in the building. Newton and Hassan Diarra then each made a free throw to seal the win.

The victory also would not have been possible without the contributions of Stephon Castle late. The freshman, despite struggling from the field (3-of-10), made several critical defensive plays, grabbed seven rebounds, and scored all eight of his points in the second half. His efforts were especially key without Clingan.

The Huskies (10-2, 1-1) have an extended break and don’t return to the court until Jan. 2 against DePaul. A loss to St. John’s, coupled with this time off, would’ve have put a damper on their strong start, not to mention the holiday. Instead, they can take a quick breath before the chaos of the Big East picks back up.

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