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    Friday, June 21, 2024

    Strong defensive effort propels No. 1 UConn past No. 18 Creighton

    UConn guard Cam Spencer (12) reacts in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Creighton, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn center Donovan Clingan (32) blocks a shot by Creighton guard Trey Alexander (23) in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn guard Tristen Newton shoots as Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner, right, defends in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    Creighton center Ryan Kalkbrenner misses a dunk attempt under pressure from UConn forward Alex Karaban, left, and UConn center Donovan Clingan, center, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn guard Stephon Castle, right, celebrates with UConn guard Solomon Ball, left, in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Creighton, Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Storrs – Playing as the No. 1 team for the first time since 2009, UConn delivered a defensive masterpiece on Wednesday.

    It was an impressive effort, especially considering the opponent – No. 18 Creighton, one of the best offensive teams in the Big East and beyond.

    The top-ranked Huskies put the Bluejays in a sleeper hold for brutally long stretches in a 62-48 victory before a rowdy Gampel Pavilion crowd.

    Creighton (13-5, 4-3), which entered the game averaging 79.9 points and shooting 49%, converted an icy 34.6% overall and tied a season-low for points.

    UConn (16-2, 6-1) extended its winning streak to six straight and moved into a first place tie with Seton Hall in the Big East standings. The Huskies are off to their best league start since 2008-09.

    “Just thrilled to get the win,” coach Dan Hurley said. “The way we got it was maybe the most impressive one of the year for me. … The question marks about this team and its ability to do the things that we aspire to do were answered tonight.

    “It was a vintage defensive performance for us, a vintage rebounding performance for us versus some people that are hard to do those two things against. Creighton is one of the best teams in the country.”

    The Huskies contained Creighton’s big three of Trey Alexander, Ryan Kalkbrenner and Baylor Scheierman who combined for just 29 points.

    They showed their toughness on the boards as well, owning a 48-32 edge, including 21-6 on the offensive end. They had 19 second chance points and 15 points off of Creighton’s 14 turnovers.

    “We just really played UConn basketball,” redshirt sophomore Alex Karaban said. “I think that was really our best overall game the entire year. Just the toughness and the attitude we had. Everyone was locked in. … We were a lot tougher than we had been.”

    The game marked the return of sophomore Donovan Clingan who played for the first time since injuring his foot Dec 20 at Seton Hall. He provided a spark in a limited role off the bench, finishing with six points and five rebounds in 16 minutes.

    “It felt good just to go out there and battle with the guys in front of the home crowd and get the win,” said Clingan, who informed Hurley that he planned to play about two and a half hours before the game. “This was a big win for us. It felt great.”

    UConn’s defensive and rebounding excellence helped it overcome a sluggish offensive attack. The Huskies finished with their second lowest point total this season and shot just 35.7 percent from the field.

    Graduate guards Cam Spencer and Tristen Newton grabbed the scoring baton, finishing with 16 and 13 points, respectively. Karaban added 13 points and seven rebounds.

    With his parents visiting from Texas and watching from the stands, Newton played a strong all-around game also chipping in eight rebounds and five assists.

    The Huskies seized the lead for good on Spencer’s free throw at the 11:39 mark and led by as many as 22.

    Their active defense rose to smothering levels at times.

    During a momentum-changing 18-4 run that started in the first half and carried over into the second half, UConn allowed just four points in about 12 and a half minutes.

    Ball game.

    “We were just tough, man,” Hurley said. “We were Big East tough. We were warriors.”

    The Huskies pulled away at the start of the second half.

    Karaban scored his first two field goals of the game to spark a 16-5 spurt. He finished with 13 points.

    Later, Clingan’s block ignited a fast break that Newton finished off by setting up Hassan Diarra for a layup for a 43-25 lead.

    Then Karaban buried a 3-pointer and Clingan caught Stephon Castle’s pass and dunked it home, much to the delight of the crowd. UConn’s lead grew to 48-28 with about 10 and a half minutes remaining.

    The Huskies held on from there.

    Students braved the chilly weather and began lining up outside Gampel Pavilion early Tuesday morning.

    The fans brought the noise and energy come game time. They let out a roar when Clingan entered the game for the first time at the 11:42 mark of the first half with the score tied at 12-all.

    Clingan was a factor at both ends of the court. He scored his first basket in almost a month on an offensive rebound and received a rousing ovation.

    “Donovan was good,” Hurley said. “You could see some of the rust on his finishes. That’s a guy that practiced twice in the last month and we truly made a decision around 4:30-5, we decided he was going to go because he really wanted to. His foot feels great.”

    Newton and Spencer were also big factors from the start, combining for 21 of the team’s first 23 points. They powered a 14-2 run that handed UConn a 23-14 lead.

    The Huskies were up 32-21 by the break.

    They were on their way to earning a valuable win.

    They improved to 42-9 when ranked No. 1 in program history.

    “You can’t lose the next game after you’re ranked first,” Hurley said. “We all knew that coming in. The problem was, we were playing one of the best teams in the country. And we weren’t sure what Donovan was going to look like out there because he’s missed so much time. It’s amazing what he did out there.”

    Next up is a road trip to Philadelphia Saturday to play Villanova.


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