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UConn rolls to opening night win as fans return to Gampel

STORRS – In the grand scheme of life, 20 months is not a long time. But in the pandemic world, it has been an excruciating crawl.

It was 20 months ago when the UConn men’s basketball team last had fans in the building, a night when they upset Houston on Senior Night before a raucous sold-out crowd, with the team celebrating on the court like they won a championship. There was so much hope for the Huskies that evening with the AAC Tournament looming, as everyone in the program truly felt they were about to go on a run and end their three-year NCAA Tournament drought. Then, as everyone knows, all hell broke loose.

The rest of that campaign was cancelled. The Huskies did ultimately break their NCAA Tourney drought in their return to the Big East last season but did so playing all its home games in front of only family and friends in an atmosphere that, to be blunt, was cold and depressing.

On Tuesday night, it finally felt like old times again. A fired-up crowd of 10,167 fans filled Gampel Pavilion in the 2021-22 season opener against Central Connecticut State and ultimately left the building filled with joy and optimism as the Huskies, ranked 24th in the country, rolled to convincing 99-48 win.

UConn coach Dan Hurley, who received the largest ovation during the pregame introduction, was thrilled to see the student section packed to the top of the arena.

“When you have a student section like that on opening night, it’s really hard to not perform on a high level,” Hurley said. “It was so exciting to see that type of attendance.”

“All over the country, teams will be happy to see faces in the crowd instead of cardboard cutouts,” added first-year CCSU coach Patrick Sellers, a former UConn assistant.

On the court, the Huskies had their way with CCSU, all but ending the game before the first TV timeout as they jumped out to a 16-5 lead four minutes in. UConn’s calling card this season will be its depth and that was on full display.

Adama Sanogo had his way in the paint, scoring a career-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting and was a plus-45. “You could see him playing in the NBA someday down the road,” noted Sellers.

RJ Cole and Tyrese Martin had 15 and 14 points, respectively, while Tyler Polley netted 11 off the bench. UConn shot a ridiculous 61.3 percent from the field.

The big question the Huskies will have to answer is who can fill the role James Bouknight left behind after getting drafted by the Charlotte Hornets. Bouknight had a knack for getting UConn out of trouble when the offense was struggling, especially on the road. Who is going to score late in close games? Who is going to score 30-40 points when the rest of the team is having issues making shots?

Those answers will come, probably later this month when UConn plays in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament Thanksgiving week in the Bahamas. Until then, they have three, to be nice, easy games at home against Coppin State, Long Island and Binghamton.

In the meantime, Hurley will continue to gauge what rotations work with his deep roster. UConn’s size really stood out Tuesday, as it blocked nine shots with Sanogo and Akok Akok sending back three attempts apiece.

“You could see why they’re No. 24 in the country,” observed Sellers. “They are long and have size and it really bothered us. This is like the teams when I was here in the early-2000s. This has a chance to be a special team.”

Whether or not UConn becomes a “special” team remains to be seen. What was seen on Tuesday, though, was a team and fan base that had to wait too long to reunite. It was back to normal, at last.

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