STORRS – To celebrate its fifth national championship, UConn pulled out all the stops in the pregame banner ceremony at a sold out and festive Gampel Pavilion.
Adama Sanogo, Andre Jackson and Jordan Hawkins, now all in the NBA, addressed the crowd in a video tribute, as did Dan Hurley. The current team broke out special championship-themed warmups designed by Nike. Pyrotechnics were used in the starting lineups intros.
“Every time we look up at that banner, it’s always going to be something we’re going to be proud of,” Hurley said. “It something we’re never going to forget about.”
Balancing a celebration and taking care of business on the court could be tricky, but the Huskies, ranked sixth in the nation, cruised with ease in their season-opener, rolling over Northern Arizona, 95-52.
While beating a team that went 12-23 last season is nothing to get excited about, UConn’s depth and athleticism, which was on full display Monday, is.
Sophomore Alex Karaban, a crucial piece to UConn’s title, scored a career-high 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds. The Huskies were a plus-33 when he was on the floor.
Bristol’s Donovan Clingan, on a minute restriction after coming back from a preseason foot injury, made the first start of his college career and toyed with the Lumberjacks in the paint, finishing with 12 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in only 14:42 of playing time.
Tristen Newton and freshman phenom Stephon Castle combined for 26 points in the backcourt.
Perhaps most notably, Samson Johnson, after two injury-filled seasons, had the finest game of his career, registering 11 points, five rebounds and three blocks. He also threw down multiple dunks that energized the crowd.
Yet, it was Cam Spencer who Hurley had the most praise for. A sharp-shooting graduate transfer from Rutgers, Spencer has over 1,300 career points to his name, but was more than willing to play a distributing role, notching eight points and a team-high five assists.
“The best thing I saw tonight was how Cam approached (the game),” Hurley said. “A guy with his type of credentials coming in, to come in and take only three shots and just elevate the play of everyone around him, with the hockey assists, the ball movement…to me that was the story of the night.”
The challenge of having depth is finding the right lineup combinations. Needless to say, he has a good problem on his hand.
“This team has tremendous depth,” Hurley said. “We have people that can beat you offensively, and a willingness to allow others to have big nights when the matchups dictate that.”
Clingan notes a strong bond already between the returning players and the newcomers.
“I feel like the (chemistry) has been very strong,” Clingan said. “On and off the court, I feel like our relationships have been great. We all communicate in the locker room and there’s no weak link. Everyone’s willing to push each other on the court and that is the biggest thing. As leaders, (Clingan, Karaban and Newton) we need need to push (the team), especially the freshmen, get them adapted to what the college game is like because they are going to play very important roles on our team this year.”
UConn has two more warmups on its schedule with Stonehill and Mississippi Valley State before things get real on Nov. 19 when it plays Indiana at Madison Square Garden.
The 2022-23 season was one that will always live on in program history. It’s time, though, for a new chapter to begin and Monday was the start UConn was looking for.