NEW YORK – If you asked Dan Hurley or any UConn enthusiast if they’d sign up for a seven-point win against Providence to advance to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament, there’s little doubt all questioned would race for a pen.
The journey to get to the Huskies’ 73-66 win at Madison Square Garden? Maybe not. But ultimately, as the cliché goes, “a win is a win.”
UConn (25-7), looking like a legit national championship contender, destroyed the Friars in every way imaginable over the first 28 minutes. Shooting – check. Fastbreak execution – check. Hustle plays – check. The Huskies’ portion of the Thursday afternoon sellout of 19,812 was electrified, maybe even dreaming of the Final Four in Houston next month.
Then the Huskies and their fans were dealt a bit of a reality check. Providence (21-11) switched to a zone and UConn struggled to adjust, committing 18 turnovers as the Friars cut the lead down to five. Alex Karaban, however, hit a corner three with one minute left to seal the win, setting the stage for Friday’s night’s semifinal against Marquette.
The Golden Eagles, like UConn, held on for dear life, defeating St. John’s 72-70 in overtime on Thursday. UConn and Marquette split the season series with the home team winning both contests.
“If you stop playing for a little bit or get a little bit sloppy — obviously the live-ball turnovers, it’s the thing I’ve harped on — that will be an issue that could prevent this team from really achieving great things,” Hurley said. “But I thought they were not going to go away quietly, not with the atmosphere, not with the Providence program and the product they have and what they do. So obviously excited to get a chance to play the regular-season champ tomorrow.”
Andre Jackson had arguably the best and most important game of his career. The junior was everywhere, finishing with 12 points, 11 rebounds, six assists, and three steals. Not only that, he was also diving for loose balls, leading the Huskies in transition and helped hold the Friars to 41 percent shooting thanks to his suffocating perimeter defense.
For good measure, he created his own highlight reel with two massive dunks in the first half. On the second one, he burst down the floor on the fast break, faked a pass to Jordan Hawkins in the corner and threw it down with authority. Jackson then took a moment to let out his emotion and stare into the camera.
He used a simple, yet effective term to describe his game.
“It was just desperation,” Jackson said. “In these moments, you have to leave it all on the line or else you go home. Both teams really brought that edge. That’s what it was, really, desperation.”
In an interesting twist, Tristen Newton came off the bench for the first time this season. Hurley said it was due to a team culture violation and that a “small message needed to be sent.” Naheim Alleyne also faced discipline and was the last player to come off the bench instead of his usual role as the first guard substitute.
Newton thrived under fire, scoring 16 points (4 three-pointers) and dishing out seven assists.
“Whether you’re playing for the Big East Tournament or a regular season game, you’ve got to have principles and try to teach some larger lessons,” Hurley said. “And usually when players are put in that situation, they have a bad game because of the distraction that goes on with that. And I was just blown away by (Newton’s) mental toughness tonight and being able to put that behind him and perform at a high level.”
Hawkins had a game-high 19 points and Adama Sanogo hit all five of his attempts for 10 points. UConn shot 53 percent and made 13 threes to overcome its turnover issue.
Bryce Hopkins, who torched the Huskies for 27 points two months ago at Providence, was held to 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting. Noah Locke added 14 points for the Friars.
UConn displayed its max potential for nearly 30 minutes, a potential few teams in the country have, as noted by Providence coach Ed Cooley.
“To me, I think they’re the best team in America,” he raved.
The Huskies will need to play like it to beat Marquette, the Big East regular season champions, on Friday. And they will need to maintain that level if they want to fulfill their ultimate aspiration in the NCAA Tournament.