UConn downs St. John’s 95-86 with balanced effort in ‘home away from home’
UConn fans made Madison Square Garden their home away from home on Saturday, showing up in droves to support the men’s basketball team as it got an early look at the conference tournament site with a game against St John’s.
They were the only ones cheering by the end as the Huskies battled the chippy Red Storm to a 95-86 victory that never seemed in question.
The win brings an end to the Huskies’ so-called “revenge tour.” January Big East losses to the Red Storm, Providence, Marquette and Seton Hall were all avenged with wins in February. UConn has now won three straight and six of seven.
“The Garden is great, I like the Garden,” Tristen Newton said. “This is a great place to be, great atmosphere – they said the Big East Tournament is gonna be even better. It seemed like it was a home game, honestly, with all of the fans that we had here.”
While UConn’s big three of Jordan Hawkins, Adama Sanogo and Andre Jackson combined for 53 points, head coach Dan Hurley was most happy with the 32 points provided by his bench.
“That bench, with Donovan [Clingan] and Joey [Calcaterra], February resembles more like November or December,” Hurley said. “Every day we’re further away from January.”
It was the offensive rebounds and second-chance points early that allowed the Huskies to maintain a slim, 22-18 lead despite St. John’s shooting a scorching 8-for-12 from the field through the first eight minutes.
The UConn reserves, which had been relatively dormant over the last several games, provided a valuable burst when Nahiem Alleyne pulled up for a midrange shot, Clingan threw down a dunk and Calcaterra hit a 3-pointer. That 7-0 scoring run gave the Huskies a 12-point lead before Alleyne started a second run with an identical shot.
“Hopefully this is a spring board for Joey to get a little bit of the swagger back, some of the magic and the mojo,” Hurley said. “When Donovan does what he did today – we got 27 (points) 15 (rebounds) and six blocks from center – it’s devastating to the opponent. As good as [Joel] Soriano is, it’s such an imbalance and that really was the formula. ... When Nahiem scores eight or more we’re 10-0 now.”
The “U-C-O-N-N” chants came shortly after Jackson levitated to throw down a Hawkins alley-oop pass, and on the next possession Hawkins made his third 3-pointer of the game. Calcaterra, playing his most impactful minutes since he had his moment at Gampel Pavilion against Georgetown, hit another 3-pointer to extend the lead to 15.
“It feels good that I was able to contribute to a big win for us,” said Calcaterra, who scored 15 points as a reserve. “It was a revenge week. To come in here with a hostile environment – but it is Storrs South, as they say, so we had a lot of fans in attendance.”
“It’s basically a home game, for real,” Hawkins added. “It’s always fun playing here.”
The Huskies opened the second half with a 6-0 scoring run through the first three and a half minutes that extended the lead to 15. St. John’s brought its deficit down to single digits on multiple occasions but shot under 40% from the field for much of the second half and never threatened the lead.
Clingan scored nine points off the bench and went off for a career-high five blocks in the second half. The freshman also grabbed six rebounds with an assist and a steal. Alleyne continued to perform on both ends of the court, scoring eight points with two rebounds, a block and a steal.
“We’re like the best team in the country when our bench plays the way they played today,” Hawkins said. “If we continue playing like that I think we’re pretty hard to beat.”
The bench corps was without backup point guard Hassan Diarra, who suffered an abdominal strain in the Providence game on Wednesday.
As a team the Huskies reached double-digits in blocks for the second time this season, finishing with 11 to tie the season-high 11 at Marquette. UConn scored 27 second-chance points off 17 offensive rebounds, and added 19 points on fast break opportunities.
Improving to 22-7 and 11-7 in Big East play, UConn returns to Connecticut for its final home game at the XL Center against DePaul on Wednesday before heading to Philadelphia on Saturday for the season finale at Villanova. The Big East Tournament back at MSG begins on March 8.