By John FantaFollow @John_Fanta
UConn may have entered Mohegan Sun’s “Bubbleville” with a 2-0 record, but that didn’t mean Dan Hurley was pleased with the way his team had started the season. With an increase in competition on Wednesday night against a physical USC team, Hurley called his practices leading into the game a “cauldron of intensity” in an attempt to get the Huskies’ toughness to a greater level.
The way UConn practice is set up, the players in blue are the top six Huskies in the rotation. Players 7-13, who are trying to get up to the six-man group, wear gray.
“The last three practices, we’ve literally flipped every player back-and-forth like some time of a fire drill from blue to gray,” said Hurley. “Literally, after one defensive lapse or one play that wasn’t all about toughness, (they were flipped).”
Hurley’s tactics paid off, in the form of a gutsy, defensive grinder of a victory as the Huskies edged USC 61-58 to improve to 3-0 on the season.
The player who flipped his fortunes was senior Josh Carlton. Having played just three minutes against Central Connecticut and not appearing in the Hartford game, the 6-foot-11 forward made the difference against USC with nine points and 11 boards in 30 minutes.
Carlton entered Bubbleville with some steam built up.
“I talked to Josh after the game and he wasn’t happy that he wasn’t playing,” said sophomore James Bouknight. “He got his chance today and he turned up. He was a dog out there. He fought for his minutes and he played a great game. He was a big-time factor in helping us win tonight.”
Hurley said with the way Adama Sanogo has come in, the four-star freshman has been “breathing down Carlton’s neck” in practice. To add to the depth, sophomore forward Akok Akok is due back in a couple of weeks as he completes recovery from an achilles injury.
“Instead of caving in and turtling up, he’s fighting back,” said Hurley. “That speaks a lot about his character. We don’t win that game without Josh. He played with the type of desperation that older players play with when they’re seniors. He looked like a senior that understands how important every possession is, how important every game is. We don’t have a guy in the program that’s ever played in the NCAA Tournament and we talked about that going into this game. If you want to play in March, you’ve got to win games like this.”
UConn scored just three points in the final 8:28 of the game, but found a way to fall back on their defense, which allowed just two made field goals in that span.
“Success for us this time of year,” said Hurley, “until we’re comfortable offensively, you’ve got to win with your defense. You’ve got to win with your toughness and your grit and your togetherness.”
The Huskies outrebounded the Trojans (3-1) by a count of 42-31, forcing USC to shoot 19-of-53 from the field and just 3-of-19 from three-point land.
“The way we did it was important,” said Hurley on the win. “I thought that game reminded me of the way we lost to Xavier or Indiana last year in the non-conference. We’ve won eight in a row (dating back to last year). When you start winning a lot, you start finding different ways to win.”
To no surprise, Bouknight was the star for the Huskies, scoring 18 points to go with seven rebounds and a pair of assists. He was one of three UConn players in double-figures, with Rhode Island transfer Tyrese Martin scoring 11 points and senior Isaiah Whaley adding 10.
“It was a tough week in practice,” said Bouknight following the win, “but it paid off.”
The unbeaten Huskies will remain in Mohegan Sun’s Bubbleville for a Saturday game against NC State. Tip-off will be at Noon ET.
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