UConn men’s basketball forward Akok Akok finally steps up when his number is called

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In a pivotal moment in his career, UConn men’s basketball forward Akok Akok answered the call on Saturday afternoon at Gampel Pavilion.

The redshirt junior was given the start against Grambling State with star Adama Sanogo out multiple weeks with an abdominal strain. Senior guard Tyrese Martin was also out multiple weeks with slight sprain and an avulsion fracture in his left wrist.

From tip-off, Akok played with an confident, infectious energy that had been missing from him in much of this season. His hustle and defense helped UConn dismantle Grambling State with ease, 88-59.

In a game where much of the focus was on Jordan Hawkins and Isaiah Whaley, Akok showed how pivotal he is for the long-term success for this UConn team.

UConn head coach Dan Hurley urged his team to step up in their absence, specifically calling out Akok to provide more on the court in Friday’s media availability.

“You got to get in the game and make things happen,” Hurley said. “It’s an opportunity here with Adama going down to have more minutes to really get himself going. We really need him. ... The onus is on Akok right now. It seems like a big moment in his career to turn it up and start making plays on the court.”

Until Saturday, Akok’s impact this season has felt invisible at times. In the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, not only did he score zero points in three games but had a grand total of 10 rebounds and just one block in 33 minutes.

Akok is billed as shot-blocker and paint protector who plays with massive amounts of energy. In the last four games, he looked passive, failing to secure rebounds against shorter opponents and chase after loose balls.

If he doesn’t provide anything on the defensive side of the court, Akok’s value greatly diminishes. On the offensive end, he’s primarily the screener for more offensively savvy players and the roller in pick and rolls. Occasionally, he will take the jumper, but he isn’t a player that takes a lot of shots per game.

In the last two games, he barely saw five minutes of floor time. Hurley didn’t even play him more than four minutes against a short Maryland-Eastern Shore team that UConn struggled to outrebound.

On Saturday, Akok came out with an aggressive mentality that UConn fans had been wanting to see all season long.

Sanogo and Martin are among UConn’s leaders in scoring, rebounding and blocks. Akok understood with them out, UConn misses two guys who combine for 28.5 points, 14 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks per game on court.

Against Grambling State, Akok did his best impression of both stars at times. Early in the game, Akok blocked the Tigers’ Cameron Christon at the rim, which led to a fast-break opportunity for the Huskies and eventual score by Whaley after the Huskies corralled two offensive rebounds.

A couple plays later, Akok rolled to the rim and dunked a monstrous alley-oop that had fans at Gampel Pavilion on their feet.

He showed poise on the court offensively while shooting an efficient 4-for-7 from the field for 10 points. His 10 points tied his scoring total in his last five games. On the defensive end, he shut down the paint with four blocks, a season high.

His play was reminiscent of his freshman year where he showcased his potential before his torn Achilles tendon injury.

Hurley was pleased with how he stepped up.

“It was good for him to get a lob dunk, make some impact blocks, and you know he drove the ball, he played offense today,” Hurley said. “In the Bahamas, I think he was just a little frozen out there in terms of just trying to get into the flow of things.”

As the Huskies continue to play tougher opponents, this is the Akok they need to show up on a consistent basis if they want to win without their two stars.

“We’re going to need close to double figure points from him and impact on the offensive and defensive glass and that shot blocking,” said Hurley.

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