UConn holds off Texas to capture Empire Classic championship
New York – Coach Dan Hurley places a great deal of importance on winning championships.
It doesn’t matter if a national, Big East or in-season tournament championship is at stake. UConn will scratch, fight and claw for the right to hoist a trophy.
That’s exactly what transpired in the Empire Classic championship game on Monday.
Fighting through some adversity, No. 5 UConn dug deep to hold off No. 15 Texas, posting an 81-71 win at Madison Square Garden.
“It feels great to win a championship here in New York in Madison Square Garden with this team,” said senior Hassan Diarra, who’s from nearby Queens. “It just feels amazing.”
The Huskies (5-0) never trailed but never really felt comfortable either until inside the final minute.
Redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban, who had a team-high 20 points, carried the Huskies to the finish line.
Holding a shaky 71-67 advantage, Karaban delivered in the clutch, scoring six straight points. He hit two shot-clock beating jumpers, the second of which came with a minute left and pushed the lead to eight. He finished with a team-high 20 points.
Graduate transfer Cam Spencer (16 points) hit four free throws in the final 41 seconds to ice the victory. Tristen Newton (eight points, eight assists) was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
The Huskies received valuable contributions from reserves Samson Johnson (career highs in points with 15 and rebounds with eight) and Diarra (a season-high eight points, six rebounds).
“Those two guys were the most valuable players of this game,” Karaban said. “Without them, we don’t win. Sam and Hass really stepped up big time for us and led us to this win.”
Diarra also played lock-down defense on Texas guard Max Abamas who had 10 points on 4 for 14 shooting.
“He was a pest defensively,” coach Dan Hurley said. “He made so many winning plays out there. That’s the template for him. If we can have a lot of nights like that from him, it puts us in a great spot.”
UConn (5-0) heads back to Storrs with two quality wins in the Empire Classic and a nation’s best 11-game winning streak that dates back to the start of the 2023 NCAA tournament.
“It’s huge momentum for us,” Karaban said about winning the Empire Classic championship. “We had the same thing happen last year in Oregon (at the Phil Knight Invitational) and we continued to have momentum for us heading into the other non-conference games.
“This right here with a new team, experiencing the feeling of winning a championship is something special. Just a little taste of what we want in the future with the Big East and national championship. It’s something great to build on.”
The Huskies have won 22 straight non-conference games by double figures, one shy of the record held by the 2008-09 North Carolina team.
“The program has got so much confidence,” Hurley said. “You win a national championship and you step on the court with a lot of belief that you’re supposed to win. And we’re pretty relentless. The coach is relentless. The players are relentless. We’re going to try to beat you by as many as we can beat you by.”
UConn dealt with some adversity on the way to winning the Empire Classic title.
Foul trouble limited starter Donovan Clingan to 13 minutes overall. He went to the bench with his third foul with 14:33 left.
The Longhorns pushed hard to cut into the deficit, riding the play of Dillon Mitchell who had a career high 21 points.
UConn’s lead dipped to six three times in the first eight minutes of the second half, the last time on Ithiel Horton’s inside basket that closed the gap to 60-54 at the 11:58 mark.
The Huskies needed a spark and got one from Diarra, who scored off a spin move to start a 9-4 run.
After Newton hit an off-balance drive in the lane and Karaban drained a three, Diarra combined with Johnson for the play of the game.
Diarra stole the ball and took off. He threw a lob to a trailing Johnson who finished off the fast break with a dunk, pushing the lead to 69-56.
“We have that connection,” said Johnson, who is roommates with Diarra. “We just made eye contact and it was there.”
The Huskies made the big plays down the stretch to close out the win – their first over ranked opponent this season.
The game pitted two high-powered offensive teams, with Texas averaging 83.8 points and UConn 91.5.
The Huskies quickly found their rhythm, running an efficient offense to build a 16-point lead.
Texas tried to slow up UConn’s momentum by calling two timeouts in the first eight minutes.
It didn’t work.
The Huskies stretched its lead to 27-11.
The Huskies carried a 46-33 advantage into halftime despite foul trouble. Clingan and Spencer each picked up two fouls and spent long stretches on the bench. And Newton, the team’s leading scorer, missed his first six shots.
The Huskies got some offensive help from some unlikely sources in Johnson and Diarra and maintained a double digit lead. Solomon Ball, a freshman starting in place of the injured Stephon Castle, also made a contribution, scoring all seven of his points before intermission.
Johnson, an athletic forward with limited game experience prior to this season, had a breakout performance.
In the first half, Johnson hit his career high of 11 points while Diarra had six points, surpassing his scoring average of 3.8 per game.
At one point, the productive trio combined for 15 straight points.
Finally, Newton, who scored 23 points in Sunday’s win over Indiana, finally broke into the scoring column with a minute left and then added two free throws before the break.
There was still plenty of work to be done before UConn could celebrate a championship win.
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