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    Friday, March 01, 2024

    Bench is starting to take shape for No. 5 UConn

    UConn's Samson Johnson dunks in front of Stonehill's Pano Pavlidis in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Nov. 11, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Samson Johnson (35), second from left, Jaylin Stewart (3), second from right, and Solomon Ball, right, compete for the ball with Indiana's Kel'el Ware, left, and Trey Galloway, center, during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Sunday, Nov. 19, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
    UConn's Samson Johnson (35) reacts after dunking in front of Texas's Ze'Rik Onyema, right, and Dillon Mitchell (23) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the final of the Empire Classic tournament Monday, Nov. 20, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

    During the national championship run last March, UConn’s bench was reliable as the sunrise.

    Coach Dan Hurley could count on his reserves to rise to the occasion and provide a lift on both ends of the court.

    But Nahiem Alleyne and Joey Calcaterra, two productive, veteran reserves, moved on after the season, leaving a huge void to fill and questions about this season’s bench.

    Early signs indicate that the Huskies (5-0), who host Manhattan (3-1) at 2 p.m. Friday at the XL Center in Hartford, may be just fine.

    Fifth-ranked UConn would have fallen short in its quest to win the Empire Classic if not for receiving important contributions off the bench from senior guard Hassan Diarra and junior forward Samson Johnson who combined for 23 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, three steals and four blocks.

    The duo admirably filled in when the Huskies encountered some foul trouble.

    “The question about this team going into the year was the bench,” coach Dan Hurley said. “If we get those types of performances from Hassan and Samson, and as we get Steph (Castle) back and Solo (Ball) continues to develop, we’re going to have that depth.

    “The great thing about this team, Cam (Spencer) and Tristen (Newton) have a bad shooting night, we’ve got a lot of weapons, a lot of people that can beat you.”

    Roles have greatly expanded for Diarra and Johnson, who are roommates.

    Last season, Diarra was basically a defensive specialist and energy guy off the bench. He averaged just 2.1 points and 1.3 rebounds in 12.7 minutes while making 36 appearances.

    A foot injury derailed Johnson last season, as he played a total of 46 minutes, 54 seconds in 12 games.

    Hurley needs more production out of the pair this season.

    So far, they’ve delivered.

    Johnson is starting to live up to his enormous potential.

    After contributing career highs for points (15) and rebounds (8) in the Empire Classic championship win over Texas on Monday, Johnson boosted his averages to 8.2 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. He combines with starter Donovan Clingan to form a formidable duo at center.

    “I’ve been putting a lot of work in,” Johnson said. “The coaching staff believes in me. My teammates are just helping me stay grounded and stay focused. … It was great to go out there and produce.”

    Diarra, who had season highs of eight points and six rebounds versus Texas, is up to 4.6 points and 3.2 rebounds. He also has 16 assists and just three turnovers.

    “We had two veteran guards coming off the bench last year in Nahiem and Joey, so there’s a lot of pressure on Hassan to deliver those types of performances,” Hurley said.

    Diarra and Johnson have far more experience than any other UConn’s reserves. Freshman forward Jaylin Stewart is the only other bench player to see action in all five games while freshman Jayden Ross has played a total of 42 minutes in four games.

    The rotation is thinner ever since freshman Solo Ball replaced the injured Castle (knee) in the starting lineup in the last three games. Castle could return as early as the end of next week.

    UConn should be able to survive without Castle the next two games.

    Manhattan is rebuilding under former Hartford coach John Gallagher, who’s in his first season. The Jaspers were picked to finish 11th in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.

    The Huskies need two convincing wins to set the record for the most consecutive victories by double figures. They own a 22-game streak, one behind record holder North Carolina, which accomplished the feat during the 2008-09 season.

    They host New Hampshire on Monday in Storrs.

    g.keefe@theday.com

    No. 5 UCONN vs. MANHATTAN

    Location: XL Center, Hartford

    Tip time: 2 p.m. (FS1)

    Records: UConn 5-0, Manhattan 3-1

    Last game: UConn beat No. 15 Texas, 81-71, Tuesday; Manhattan won at Central Connecticut, 67-63, Sunday

    Series: UConn leads, 19-14, winning last meeting 61-46, in December 2018 in Storrs.

    Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15.4 pts, 7.4 rebs, 5.6 assists), 6-6 graduate guard Cam Spencer (15.8 pts, 4.4 assists), 6-3 fr. guard Solo Ball (7 pts, 2.2 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (16.8 pts, 6.2 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (11.8 pts, 6.2 rebs, 2.2 blks)

    Manhattan, 6-4 grad guard Perry Cowan (7 pts 2.5 rebs), 6-0 fr. guard Jaden Winston (4.5 pts, 2.3 rebs), 6-4 r-so. guard Brett Rumpel (12.3 pts, 6 rebs, 2.7 assists), 6-7 fr. forward Seydou Traore (15.5 pts, 10.5 rebs), 6-8 so. forward Daniel Rouzan (9.3 pts, 4 rebs)

    Noteworthy: Rare day after Thanksgiving matinee. … Huskies have won 11 straight dating back to last season. … UConn riding momentum from Empire Classic championship win. … Manhattan’s wins came vs. Bryant (61-59), Felician (79-67) and CCSU (67-63). Jaspers lost to No. 1 Kansas (99-61), which will host UConn on Dec. 1. … Top reserve: 6-2 jr. guard Shaquil Bender (9.3 pts, 2.5 rebs). … Manhattan has been out-scored (72 to 67), out-rebounded (40.8 to 37.3) and out-shot (41.8 percent to 40.9) so far this season. … First-year coach John Gallagher won 169 games and earned an NCAA berth in 2021 while leading the Hartford program from 2010 to 2022. … Traore leads the MAAC in rebounding. … Hot: UConn out-scoring opponents by 29.4 points per game. Cold: Manhattan shooting 29.8 percent from 3-point land. .. Injury update: Stephon Castle (knee) out. … Up next: UConn hosts New Hampshire on Monday at 7 p.m. in Storrs.

    Gavin Keefe

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