Spencer powers No. 5 UConn to runaway victory
Hartford – UConn recruited graduate transfer Cam Spencer for situations like in Tuesday’s game.
A lethal perimeter shooter with a fierce competitive streak, Spencer helped the Huskies out of a minor jam early on and then carried them to the finish line.
Veterans Alex Karaban and Tristen Newton went to the bench after both picking up two fouls. The fifth-ranked Huskies already were without starting point guard Stephon Castle, who sat out with a knee injury.
With center Donovan Clingan taking a break, coach Dan Hurley went with a lineup of four bench players and Spencer.
Spencer kept the Huskies afloat, scoring 11 of UConn’s first 18 points against Mississippi Valley State, which remained within single digits.
Once UConn’s veterans came back into the game, the Huskies gradually pulled away, building a 17-point halftime lead on the way to an 87-53 victory at the XL Center.
Spencer finished with a season high 25 points, 19 in the first half, and went 9 for 14 from the field. He had scored just 20 points total and made just five of 14 field goals in his first two games.
“It felt good,” Spencer said. “I couldn’t throw it in the ocean (against Stonehill Saturday), so to see a few go in tonight was great. I credit all my teammates for finding me in open spots and I just had to knock it down.”
After taking an unselfish pass first approach in the first two games, Spencer put his smooth jump shot on display, finishing with a career high seven 3-pointers.
Three games into his UConn career, Spencer is showing that Hurley can count on him to deliver when needed.
“That’s something we see on a daily basis with Cam,” Hurley said. “The shooting, that’s something he’s been able to do his whole career. … He probably is embodying more of the things right now that more players should embody.
“He plays with a toughness. He plays with a little bit of dog mentality. I don’t think he had a lot of guys that were ready to go with him tonight. It’s scary to think what the halftime score would have been if not for that first half by him.”
On the other hand, It’s too early to rely too much on the freshmen, outside of Castle, for any extended time.
Hurley blamed his veterans for a lack of leadership.
“I don’t think the old guys helped the young guys,” Hurley said.
Overall, Hurley was ticked off and frustrated with his team’s effort, especially on the boards.
“Not particularly pleased with tonight’s performance,” Hurley said. “What went on on the backboard especially early and at different times in the second half was not something that we’ve seen for a couple of years here.
“I thought we looked soft. We just had terrible discipline in terms of the fouls and just couldn’t guard the ball. Overall, it was just a frustrating night of basketball.”
Castle’s availability for UConn’s upcoming games in the Empire Classic on Sunday and Monday is uncertain. Freshman Solo Ball took Castle’s spot in the starting lineup on Tuesday and finished with 10 points.
Hurley expects to have an update on Castle’s status later in the week. Castle injured his knee while slipping on the court in Saturday’s game against Stonehill.
“I don’t think we’re nervous about this being a long term thing,” Hurley said. “We think it’s pretty minor. If he’s going to miss time, it won’t be much.”
The Huskies still won easily without Castle against a Mississippi Valley State team that won only five games last season.
That won’t be the case for most upcoming games.
Over the course of the next month, UConn could face as many as four nationally ranked teams.
That includes a trip to No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 1 in a much anticipated meeting between the last two national champions, and a battle in Seattle with No. 11 Gonzaga on Dec. 15.
It starts with a challenging game against Indiana Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.
“We’ve got a big time game on Sunday,” Clingan said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do in the next couple of days to prepare.”
For the third straight home game, UConn overwhelmed an overmatched opponent on Tuesday. The Huskies beat Northern Arizona and Stonehill by an average of 41.5 points in the first two games.
Foul trouble and mistakes put the Huskies (3-0) in a challenging spot against the Delta Devils (0-3).
Karaban earned his second foul at the 16:14 mark and Newton joined him on the bench a few minutes later.
With several unproven players on the court, the Huskies watched their lead shrink to 15-11.
But that’s as close as Mississippi Valley State would get.
Spencer drained a 3-pointer over a zone and Clingan started to go to work inside once he returned. Later, he buried his fifth three and then set up Clingan for an inside basket to push the lead to 38-20.
“We were a little stagnant to start,” Spencer said. “Just being ready to shoot was the main thing.”
Overall, it was an ugly first half for the Huskies, who had nine turnovers. Newton and MVS’s Danny Washington briefly exchanged words and each earned a technical foul. A lack of toughness also was an issue.
The Huskies continued to ride Spencer’s hot hand early in the second half. His 3-pointer handed UConn a 51-31 edge.
Perhaps to make a point, Hurley kept his freshmen on the bench for most of the second half.
UConn settled down and hit the accelerator.
Spencer, who averaged 13.2 points playing for Rutgers last season, hit his seventh 3-pointer for a 67-41 advantage.
The Huskies won their 20 straight non-conference game. Clingan had 17 points, five rebounds and three blocks while Karaban chipped in 14 and Newton added 10 points, eight rebounds and seven assists.
“We gave up 32 percent from the field, had 20 assists. shot 54 percent and we made 11 threes, and I’m pissed because that’s not championship caliber basketball,” Hurley said.
Earlier Tuesday, Clingan and Newton were named to the Wooden Award Preseason top 50 list.
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