NEW YORK – When it comes to praise, Tristen Newton received the ultimate basketball compliment from Dan Hurley on Sunday.
“He was the best player in the national championship game in front of 75,000 people, with all the money on the table,” the UConn coach said of his senior guard.
Hurley was hardly surprised then to see Newton, in UConn’s first high profile game of the season, stand out as the most confident and most prolific player on the floor. Newton compiled 23 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and two steals in leading the Huskies to a rout over Indiana, 77-57, in the Empire Classic at a rowdy and full Madison Square Garden.
“Coming into MSG with the atmosphere like this for him is exciting,” said Hurley, whose team will face Texas, 81-80 victors over Louisville, Monday night to determine the winner of this event.
The crowd was surprisingly split, with at least half of it dressed in bright Indiana red. It made for a riveting experience in the stands with both groups of fan bases going at each other in a good-natured competition.
“I thought Indiana had a hell of a showing,” Hurley said. “Looking at the crowd before the game, it was a lot of Indiana (in the stands). It was an awesome atmosphere.”
With Stephon Castle out for multiple weeks due to a knee injury, the Huskies will need extra from its veterans. They received that boost on Sunday.
Cam Spencer, after a breakout game on Tuesday in Hartford, scored 18 points and grabbed five rebounds. Alex Karaban scored 11 of his 13 points in the first half to help UConn to a 37-30 advantage after 20 minutes. Donovan Clingan secured nine rebounds (seven offensive) and helped hold Indiana’s Kel’el Ware to only 11 points on 2-of-10 shooting.
The Huskies, now 4-0, dominated the boards to a 44-22 tune and held the Hoosiers to 38 percent shooting.
“We lost a lot of people from last year,” Hurley said. “Coming in here today, with a crowd like that, it’s the first time this team is taking the court with some electricity in the building. Each year is its own entity, especially when you lost what we lost. I was really impressed with how we separated today.”
Newton gave the Hoosiers all kinds of fits, as they were unable to stop him from getting to the rim. When he was contested, he then found himself at the foul line where he connected on 8-of-10 attempts.
“They rely on me to be aggressive and trust in me to go out and perform like to need to,” said Newton, who drew 10 fouls himself on Indiana.
“At the start of the second half, they took us out of everything we wanted to do,” Indiana coach Mike Woodson said. “It was glaring (today) that we got out-toughed.”
UConn was up 10 when Malik Reneau (18 points and three blocks), who hurt the Huskies continually with lefty drives to the basket, fouled out with seven minutes remaining.
“We didn’t do a good enough job on Malik. He’s a hell of a player,” Hurley said. “That guy is going to be a killer.”
The Huskies cruised from there with Spencer, in his UConn MSG debut, scoring five straight points to seal it.
“This is the best arena in the world,” Spencer said. “These are the type of games you live for.”
Spencer and the Huskies, now winners of 21 straight non-conference games (all by double digits), won’t have to wait long until they make their MSG return. Texas, ranked 19th, is on the slate in this mini-tournament final Monday. A win equals a title. While it’s hardly the same caliber of their triumph in April, it would mark a very strong start to their championship defense.