Coming into the Battle for Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas, the UConn Men’s basketball team had not faced a true challenge. They were 4-0 and had looked like a strong team early, but without a real measuring stick to determine of they are for real or just beating up on lesser talent. The Battle for Atlantis tournament field is stacked and there are tough opponents to face at every corner. After just one game in the tournament, UConn has a statement win and have put the basketball world on high alert that they are for real and can hang with the big dogs.
Let me start by saying that the #22 UConn vs #19 Auburn game was one of the best I have seen in a long time. When not playing UConn, Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers are an energetic, fun team to watch. They like to get out in transition and have the ability to score in bunches, both inside and out. They are tenacious on defense and matched up well with the tough, hard-nosed UConn team that has begun to find some scoring. Both teams are well coached and have some young talent they hope will develop into stars. This game was chock-full of scoring runs, lead changes, momentum shifts, big shots, big defensive stops, and clutch plays.
It seemed like UConn had several chances to put the game away in regulation and both OTs, but Auburn kept fighting back and making clutch play after clutch play. Auburn’s full-court press forced several mistakes and turnovers from UConn and led to some quick point swings when the Tigers desperately needed them. Freshman Jabari Smith had a slow first half, but had some huge shots in the 2nd half and OTs on his way to 22pts on the night. The most impressive Tiger was K.D. Johnson, who seemed to be everywhere on offense and defense on his way to a strong 27pt performance with 5 big steals. When he wasn’t collecting a steal, he was pressing UConn into bad passes and tougher shots.
For UConn, Adama Sanogo was an absolute beast. He finished with 30pts, 6 rebounds, and 2 blocks, but the most amazing sign of improvement in his game was his ability to play with 4 fouls for a long time without fouling out. Sanogo picked up his 4th foul with 7:13 left in the 2nd half and was able to play solid defense, although a bit more passive, and be a strong offensive presence for the remainder of regulation and 2 OTs. His ability to stay on the floor was huge for the Huskies and played a major factor in the win. RJ Cole and Tyler Polley added 24pts each and freshman Jordan Hawkins had 16pts in 15 minutes. He had a tough turnover that ultimately led to a 2nd OT, but overall had a strong game and showed some promise with his ability to score in bunches.
It’s only 1 game and there is no time to celebrate with a noon Thanksgiving day matchup with Michigan State less than 24 hours later, but it’s a significant W to take the Huskies to 5-0. They are already building their resume with a top 25 win and can continue to pad that in this early season with another win or two in paradise. As the younger players improve and the team begins to gel, the Huskies will continue to get better and hopefully have many more big wins this season.