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    UConn Men's Basketball
    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    UConn's Diarra a positive influence on newcomer Akok

    Mamadou Diarra has endured his share of challenges during his comeback journey from knee surgery.

    While on the sidelines, Diarra did whatever he could to support and help his UConn basketball teammates.

    "It was definitely tough to sit out because I feel like I can bring a lot to the table in terms of energy and effort for my team," Diarra said. "I just try to from the sidelines be as positive of an influence to my teammates and encourage them as much as I can."

    Diarra recently returned in a limited role, making his first appearance of the season on Jan. 26 against Wichita State. The redshirt sophomore continues to be a positive influence.

    He's taken the newest Husky, Akok Akok, under his wing. They share a similar basketball background, both playing at Putnam Science Academy at different times before coming to UConn.

    "The Putnam guys, they speak their vernacular," coach Dan Hurley said. "A different language for those guys. They were fast friends coming in. Mo had a big impact on Akok when he first got to Putnam. He's been helping him."

    Diarra will be available to play Sunday when UConn (12-9, 3-5) hosts East Carolina (9-11, 2-6) in an American Athletic Conference game at the XL Center in Hartford (2 p.m., ESPNews). Guard Alterique Gilbert (bruised left shoulder), who did some shooting on the side at Saturday's practice, will likely miss his second straight game.

    Akok, who enrolled at UConn for the second semester, is sitting out and will play next season. He appreciates Diarra helping him through the transition period.

    "He's a great teammate," Akok said. "He's a guy that's been here. He's teaching me the ropes. I've been doing great. I feel like UConn is going to help me get better for my future goals and I hope I can help lift this program to bring it back to where it once was."

    Diarra's younger brother, Hassan, played with Akok at Putnam. Diarra also served as Akok's host during his recruiting trip to UConn last fall.

    "We already knew each other on a personal level," Diarra said. "It's good to have him here. He's a really good kid and a hard worker. I feel he'll bring a lot to the table when he's finally able to play.

    "Coming mid-year is pretty tough. I just try to teach him anything I know. So anyway I can help him, I'll try to help him out. He's been picking it up real well."

    Diarra received a nice ovation from the Gampel Pavilion crowd when he made his 2018-19 season debut late in a lopsided win over Wichita State. He converted a lay-up for his first basket since scoring eight points in a season-ending AAC tournament loss against SMU last March.

    "I heard it," Diarra said of the ovation. "It was a surreal feeling just to be back out there. There was so much going on. It was a blessing."

    Last summer, Diarra had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, beginning a long recovery process. He says he feels good now and continues to work on getting stronger.

    Diarra didn't play in Thursday's loss at Central Florida, but the 6-foot-8 forward may get a chance to contribute against East Carolina. He could be a good match-up for ECU's mobile frontcourt players.

    "This may be a game for him," Hurley said. "He looked pretty good today in practice. Let's hope he looks good in the shoot-around tomorrow."

    The ECU player to watch is Jayden Gardner, a talented 6-foot-6, 245-pound forward. He's the leading candidate for the AAC rookie of the year award, ranking first in the conference in scoring (18.8) and second in rebounding (9.4). He's second in the nation in free throw attempts and 10th in free throws made.

    Gardner had a monster game at UCF on Jan. 13, finishing with 35 points and 20 rebounds.

    "He's an impressive a young player as you'll see," Hurley said. "He's been so prolific. ... We're not the quickest and most athletic frontcourt in terms of rim protection and protecting the paint, so his speed and quickness is definitely concerning for us. Our guards are going to really have to help out."

    g.keefe@theday.com

    UCONN vs. EAST CAROLINA

    Location: XL Center, Hartford

    Tip: 2 p.m. (ESPNews)

    Records: UConn 12-9, 3-5; East Carolina 9-11, 2-6

    Last game: UConn lost at Central Florida, 73-67, Thursday; East Carolina beat Tulane, 66-65, Thursday

    Probable starters: East Carolina, 6-1 so. guard Shawn Williams (11.3 pts), 6-3 sr. guard Isaac Fleming (8.1 pts, 3.7 assists), 6-5 so. guard K.J. Davis (8.4 pts, 4.7 rebs) 6-6 fr. forward Jayden Gardner (18.8 pts, 9.4 rebs), 6-8 so. forward Dimitri Spasojevic (3.5 pts, 2.3 rebs)

    UConn, 6-3 sr. guard Jalen Adams (18.6 pts), 6-3 grad guard Tarin Smith (8.4 pts), 6-2 jr. guard Christian Vital (13.6 pts, 5.6 rebs), 6-8 so. forward Tyler Polley (7.5 pts, 2.2 rebs), 6-10 so. forward Josh Carlton (7.6 pts, 5 rebs)

    Noteworthy: UConn won two of last five. ... ECU's five game losing streak ended with win over Tulane. ... Series: UConn leads 9-2, sweeping last season's games, 84-80 on road, 70-65 at home. Adams averaged 22 pts in two games. ... ECU's other AAC vs. Cincinnati. ... Gardner, frontrunner for AAC rookie of the year, leads AAC in scoring, second in rebounding. ... Pirates 11th in AAC in overall scoring (68.2 pts), Huskies 2nd at 78.2. ... ECU last in 3-pters made per game at 4.7, shoots 42.4 percent overall. ... Top reserve: 6-6 r-jr. forward Seth Leday (11.6 pts, 6.6 rebs). ... ECU coach Joe Dooley, while an assistant at South Carolina, recruited Dan Hurley. "I had a great visit. Saw Hootie and the Blowfish before they blew up. Don't remember getting on the plane after that late night concert." ... Injury news: UConn's Alterique Gilbert (left shoulder) day to day. ... Hot: Vital averaging 16.6 pts and 7.2 rebs in last five games. Cold: AAC opponents taken 88 free throws and made 60 more attempts than UConn. ... UConn is 4-2 when playing on Super Bowl Sunday, 0-2 when Patriots play. ... Huskies 11-2 at home, Pirates 0-7 on road. ... Adams needs 54 points to become AAC's all-time leading scorer. ... Up next: UConn visits Temple Wednesday night in Philadelphia.

    — Gavin Keefe

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