Dom Amore: Creighton brings out the ‘grizzly bear’ in UConn’s Adama Sanogo, who scored 26 points in a much-needed victory

Adama Sanogo was angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry, nor would an opponent, but his UConn teammates and coaches loved it.

“He’s coming over to you, telling you what to do on offense,” coach Dan Hurley said Saturday after the Huskies’ 69-60 victory over Creighton. “He’s telling you plays he wants called for him. And you’re saying, ‘Yes, Adama? Where do you want it again?’ ... He’s been seething the last couple of days. The will of that man. Poke a koala or a Teddy bear, poke a grizzly or a Kodiak bear? That’s the wrong guy to poke. He’s a rare guy in terms of his will and his internal toughness.”

What’s to do when a seething Sanogo is turning grizzly? “Just get him the ball,” Jordan Hawkins said. “And get out of the way.”

This just about sums up a Saturday at Gampel Pavilion, packed to 10,167 capacity and loud, the Huskies fans coming in force with no intention of letting what had been a “joy ride” of a season, Hurley’s words, go down the drain after a couple of tough conference losses on the road. UConn won its first 14, reaching No. 2 in the rankings, then lost at Xavier and Providence in rather tentative fashion last week.

Now poking Sanogo and the Huskies was Creighton, a team picked first in the Big East preseason poll, a team that had beaten UConn in all five previous meetings, and their center, Ryan Kalkbrenner, unwittingly poked the wrong bear a while back. Sanogo had 26 points and nine rebounds, going around and over Kalbrenner and the Bluejays’ front court. Like the crowd, Sanogo had no intention of letting his team lose a third in a row.

“They were saying some stuff,” Sanogo said. “If you know me, you know I take stuff personal.”

During Big East media day in October when Sanogo was voted preseason player of the year, Kalkbrenner, who scored 22 the last time Creighton played UConn, told reporters, “I think we’re going to find out when we play them.” Hurley queued up other comments, about which team should circle the other on its calendar.

“It fun to go up against other bigs people say are good. Me, ahhh, I don’t know about that,” Kalbrenner said, referring to his matchup with Sanogo, during a Field of 68 podcast two months ago. “Last year, I did really, really good against them and I’m just looking to repeat that performance because it would go a long way toward proving people wrong for making that selection.”

Not all that inflammatory, really, but Hurley knew which buttons to push to get Sanogo out of the funk after a few subpar performances.

“Adama had the extra motivation coming into the game over things that were said about him at some point,” Hurley said. “That was played. And discussed, and he made his statement on the court.”

The Huskies (15-3, 4-2 in the Big East) have been in one grinder after another since Big East play began. It’s not about depth any more, it’s about their best players performing. In a must game, if only to quiet down the negative noise outside the program’s gates, Sanogo performed.

“Coming off a game where I didn’t play well, I knew I had to be there more for the team.” Sanogo said. “I know for us to win I had to play hard. I wanted to give everything I’ve got because I know, for us to win I had to play well. They need me to play well. This was a big game, a big test. I was ready for them.”

Sanogo was 9-for-26 from the floor in two losses against Kalkbrenner and Creighton last season, and had scored only 52 points in the five losses across the last two seasons. In this game, Kalkbrenner picked up two early fouls, limiting his minutes and effectiveness, and in the second half Sanogo, always being craft with the ball underneath, got his counterpart to leave his feet a few of times. Sanogo, too, flashed his new skill, hitting a couple of 3-pointers. Kalkbrenner had nine points, four rebounds.

“Sanogo is a heck of a player, and Kalkbrenner is a heck of a player,” Creighton coach Gregg McDermott said. “Sometime one is going to get the best of the other.”

When Creighton (9-7, 3-2) surged from 11 points behind to take the lead early in the second half, Sanogo led the response, scoring the Huskies’ next seven points.

“He was disappointed with his Providence performance, and he was productive against Xavier, but his defense wasn’t there,” Hurley said. “So he was coming off back-to-back subpar games, and the reality of this whole thing is, you win because you have guys playing like players-of-the-year first-teamers. And Adama looked like the player of the year in the league.”

Sanogo, 6 feet 9 and 245 pounds, has an advantage in going against Kalkbrenner, 7-1, this year. He has to go against freshman teammate Donovan Clingan, 7-2, every day in practice, and there are times when Clingan brings out the grizzly in him, too.

“That definitely helps,” Sanogo said, “Donovan is good. You can’t just score against him, you have to find a way to score against him. That’s the same thing against Kal .... uh, what’s it? Kalkbrenner. You have to find a way to score against him.”

Uh-oh, there’s Creighton’s bulletin board material for the rematch in Omaha, Feb. 11.

Despite all his touches, Sanogo drew only three fouls, but after 26 points and a win, the whistles weren’t a factor this time. It was close at least, 19 fouls on UConn, 17 on Crieghton. More of an issue was the boards, where UConn was out-rebounded again, 49-34.

So all is not yet back to what it was in UConn’s world, but the slide was stopped, and the big man stopped it. Teddy or a grizzly?

“Grizzly Bear, for sure,” Sanogo said. “Grizzly bear.”

Dom Amore can be reached at damore@courant.com