NEW YORK – Dan Hurley, understandably, was expecting a major adjustment period for his program after losing three starters from his national championship team to the NBA.
If you told him before the season that injuries would be a major theme to the start of this season like they have been, he may have predicted doom. What no one expected, so soon, was continued dominance.
Four days after a tough, last second loss at Kansas, the fifth-ranked Huskies wasted no time getting back on track.
Thanks to a balanced attack and a relentless final 10 minutes, UConn knocked off No. 9 North Carolina, 87-76, at a lively Madison Square Garden in the Jimmy V Classic Tuesday night.
When asked how his team, now 8-1 with three wins at MSG, has picked up from where it left off last season, Hurley circled back to one of his frequently used press conference words: culture.
“Where the program’s mind is at, where we all are in terms of our confidence, in terms of culture and a championship-mentality, this is (who we are),” Hurley said. “Listen, we had one guy play well at Kansas offensively (Tristen Newton) and still had a chance to win a game on the road against one of the better teams in the country. We were disappointed in the loss, but we know our level and we’re not near our level yet.”
To think this team is not near its level yet is scary for opponents in the future, considering it defeated Indiana, Texas, and North Carolina all by double digits on a neutral court, and nearly prevailed at No. 2 Kansas.
That level has a chance to be reached when the Huskies can finally shake the injury bug hovering over this early season.
Freshman phenom Stephon Castle returned from a knee injury after missing six games and chipped in three points and four rebounds in 10 minutes off the bench. Donovan Clingan, dealing with a nagging foot injury, helped hold Armando Bacot, who entered the game averaging 16 points a game on 53 percent shooting, to only 13 points on 4-of-12 from the field. Alex Karaban, playing through a finger injury, shook off a recent shooting slump and recorded 18 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
“For Steph, that was like opening night,” Hurley said. “He played a couple of bye games (Northern Arizona and Stonehill) and was on the shelf for three weeks and basically his opening night, freshman game, is at MSG against Carolina. When we get Steph up to speed and Donovan healthy and feeling good, obviously this is a formidable team.”
UConn’s balance and depth were on full display. Cam Spencer, after hobbling through the Kansas game with a foot injury, had a strong first half and finished with 23 points, seven rebounds, six assists, and no turnovers. Newton had 14 points and five assists and freshman Solo Ball, still in the starting lineup for Castle, notched the best game of his young career, finishing with 13 points on five-of-eight shooting, including three three-pointers.
“We had a really good balance of running our stuff and executing,” Hurley said. “Our guys also attacked and made plays off script and to have 25 assists on 34 made baskets (is big).”
UConn led by 13 early in the second half before the Tar Heels, led by RJ Davis (26 points) and Harrison Ingram (20), chipped away, and cut the lead down to five. The Huskies put their foot down there, going on an 18-6 run to seal the win, much to the delight of their split of the 17,873 in attendance. Ball, Clingan, Newton and Karaban all scored in the run, once again showcasing the array of options on this roster.
“I think staying together (was important),” Karaban said. “North Carolina has a really good team; they’re going to have great success this year. We knew they were going to make a run. We knew we were good enough to respond to that run they had. We just had to trust in one another.”
After suffering its first loss since the Big East Tournament, UConn was thrilled to have the quick four-day turnaround. It showed.
“We didn’t take (the loss) too well as a team,” Ball said. “We focused and locked in on this game today and put the last game behind us. You saw how it turned out. It was everything to us.”
“We got absolutely everything that we wanted out of this when we put this on the schedule,” added Hurley. “The atmosphere was awesome. The opponent is one of the best teams in the country and it was such a great test.”
Some names have changed for the Huskies, but so far, their championship aura remains.