Isaiah Whaley pushes UConn men’s basketball across finish line in ugly overtime win over VCU in Battle 4 Atlantis finale

·6 min read

In his return from a one-game absence due to a fainting episode at the end of Wednesday’s double-overtime thriller versus Auburn, Isaiah Whaley came through in the clutch to push the UConn men’s basketball team through their Battle 4 Atlantis finale in the Bahamas.

Whaley hit his first three 3s of the season, including one to force overtime and another to kick off the Huskies’ scoring in extra time, to help No. 22 UConn grind out a 70-63 win over Virginia Commonwealth Friday, its second time playing in overtime in three games.

With wins over Auburn and VCU and a loss to Michigan State, UConn (6-1) comes away with a third-place finish in the annual holiday event. No. 6 Baylor defeated the Spartans 75-58 earlier in the day to win the tournament crown.

“We knew what our real goal was when we came here. We wanted to be playing against Baylor in that 11 a.m. game,” UConn’s R.J. Cole said. “We didn’t have that chance, but we knew that we couldn’t come out here without two wins, so we made sure that we were successful in that part.”

Not to be overlooked, Cole led the Huskies in scoring and also had his clutch moments, finishing with a game-high 26 points. Whaley, who also had the win-sealing dunk-and-one with four seconds to play, was the only other UConn player to reach double figures with 16.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” Whaley said of his last few days. “I really, really wanted to play [Thursday versus Michigan State], and I was shut down. But it was a good thing I was shut down.”

Whaley said he’s been constantly prompted to eat and drink water following Wednesday’s incident, what UConn called a result of “a combination of end-of-game excitement, fatigue and dehydration, which caused him to feel light-headed and dizzy.” He was ruled out of the Michigan State game an hour before tip, but was cleared to play Friday as long as he didn’t experience dizziness during warmups.

“When they gave me the call and said I can go, I had a lot of emotions and a lot of energy,” Whaley said. “I felt really good playing.”

On the heels of such an intense game and emotional last few days, Whaley let loose on his final score by punching and head-butting the stanchion.

But it didn’t take his absence Thursday or huge presence Friday for Whaley’s value to be clear to those around him.

“In terms of skill level or the gaudiest numbers, no, he’s not the best all-around player, but he’s our most important player,” coach Dan Hurley said. “Winning didn’t begin at UConn until he emerged.”

Whaley’s emphatic return was the highlight of an otherwise ugly game that featured lengthy scoring droughts, a copious amount of forced and unforced turnovers (36 in all) and 45 foul calls.

After the game’s first basket, a Whaley 3, UConn trailed the rest of the first half, struggling with the Rams’ trademark defensive pressure and committing a slew of turnovers. A pair of Tyler Polley free throws at the 4:23 mark tied things up at 20 apiece, but VCU got going offensively, scoring eight straight points.

Whaley gave the Huskies some life with a second-chance layup, then forcing a steal with less than 30 seconds remaining in the half that resulted in a Jalen Gaffney basket. Cole was fouled on his last-ditch effort at a half-court shot, making two of three from the line, to pull UConn within two (28-26) at the break — a respectable outcome considering UConn had as many turnovers as made field goals in the first 20 minutes (eight) and shot a paltry 27% (17% from 3).

“The way we handle pressure, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Hurley said. “We did some things with the ball today that were incredibly bizarre. We don’t have the guards to just kind of dribble through [pressure] or give it to a guy who can just kind of put the pressure on his heels.”

Finally converting on their shots, the Huskies came out of the half with a 7-0 run to retake the advantage on a Cole 3-pointer for the first time since it was 3-0. The teams traded leads before Gaffney’s free throw granted the Huskies their biggest lead at 41-37, but VCU quickly responded with six unanswered points to crawl back ahead, later extending the advantage to three with a 10-3 run.

After the under-eight timeout, Cole took over with a 3 and and-one to tie things up two separate times. Hurley was pleased with the guard’s playmaking and aggression all day. The coach had challenged him to play that way after he faltered on a specific play at the end of the Michigan State game.

“You’ve got to drag that [ball-screen] out and do what a UConn guard would do in that situation and go try to make the shot to put the game away,” Hurley said he told Cole. “He did that all day long [Friday].”

VCU managed to pull ahead by four at the 3:21 mark, but Tyrese Martin’s trey cut the deficit to one on the next play. A pair of VCU free throws allowed the Rams to creep ahead by three with 2:32 to go.

Whaley’s 3 tied things up with just over a minute remaining, but, representative of the game as a whole, neither team was able to convert on their final possession. Cole’s 3-point attempt with less than a second remaining bounced off the back of the rim.

Whaley wasn’t about to let his comeback end in vain. He got UConn on the board with another 3 to start overtime, and the Huskies would never look back. He finished the day with perfect 3-3 shooting from the perimeter.

“If you were around us daily and you see him in the summer, he makes them,” Hurley said of Whaley’s 3-point shooting. “It hasn’t translated to the court but I’m telling you he makes them... if we could ever get that from him, which he’s capable of, it’s just going to open up the court for us so much offensively.”

Cole and Adama Sanogo each sank a pair from the free-throw line to push the gap to seven. The closest VCU would get to catching up would be with six seconds left, making it a four-point game, but Whaley’s and-one ensured the Huskies win.

Hurley knows the team has a lot of work to do.

“I think we will draw a lot of confidence that we can find a way to win,” he said. “We obviously have a ton of special situation things to look at that we’re going to get a lot better from. But to be 6-1, to know a lot about our team, have a couple of home games before we go on the stretch of 22 high-level games just like this, we needed to win today badly.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at

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