No. 22 Huskies outlast VCU in OT, finish third in Battle 4 Atlantis
UConn arrived in the Bahamas with Battle 4 Atlantis championship aspirations and will return home with a consolation prize: a third-place finish and valuable experience gained by playing three intense games.
A second overtime game in three days ended Friday with the No. 22 Huskies pulling out an ugly, hard-fought tug-of-war with Virginia Commonwealth, 70-63, at Imperial Arena on Paradise Island.
"We were just really desperate to win that game," graduate forward Isaiah Whaley said during a post-game media Zoom session. "We knew it was going to be ugly. It didn't matter how it looked or how we did it, but the goal was to come out with a win."
The Huskies (6-1 overall) went 2-1 in the tournament, beating No. 19 Auburn in double overtime and losing to Michigan State by four.
"We draw a lot of confidence," coach Dan Hurley said about the Battle 4 Atlantis experience. "I think Auburn is going to have a big-time year; Those guys are great. The Michigan State game, you have a chance to win that one, and then that was a real gut-check win here when VCU forces you to play not at your best but you find a way.
"This wasn't what we wanted out of the trip. We wanted to win it and we wanted an opportunity to play Baylor. But I can live with the trip."
Friday's game would have had a different outcome if not for guard R.J. Cole and Whaley, who both scored season highs for points with 26 and 16, respectively. They were the only reliable offensive options for the Huskies, who had more turnovers (22) than field goals made (20) and shot a season-low 33.3 percent.
There were 45 fouls called and 36 turnovers committed by the two teams in the messy game. VCU shot 35.5 percent.
"It was just a bunch of adversity the whole game," Cole said. "I was just happy that we were able to break through because there were a lot of moments when it was tough. But we stuck with it."
Whaley helped finish off the stubborn Rams (3-4), sinking his career best third 3-pointer to hand UConn the lead for good (59-56) with three minutes, 54 seconds left in overtime, sparking a 9-1 spurt.
Then Whaley ended the game by converting a fast-break layup while being fouled in the final seconds. After the basket, a fired up Whaley punched the basket stanchion several times.
"When that play happened, you saw the emotions of this whole time of us being here," Whaley said. "Just that play, it felt good for us to finally fight hard and get the win."
Whaley returned after missing Thursday's Michigan State game to rest after fainting at the end of the grueling win over Auburn on Wednesday. He wanted to play, but understood why he was held out.
The Huskies were glad to have Whaley back.
"He's not our best all-around player, but he's our most important player," Hurley said. "We didn't start winning here until he battled his way into the rotation the last third of year two here. ... The winning didn't begin here at UConn until he emerged."
Hurley knew exactly what his team would be dealing with on Friday playing a defensive-minded opponent that had allowed just 54.8 points per game. VCU pushed No. 6 Baylor, the eventual tournament champion. to the limit before losing 69-61 on Thursday.
Right from the start, nothing came easy against a smothering defense that exposed UConn's weaknesses.
"We knew that today was going to be not pretty and we were going to have to show a lot about our soul as a program," Hurley said.
UConn hung in while struggling on offense and playing from behind for nearly the entire first half, trailing 28-26 at the break. The Huskies went over seven minutes without a field goal, converted an icy 8 for 30 from the field and leading scorer Adama Sanogo (six points, seven rebounds) was limited by foul trouble.
The rock fight continued throughout the second half, with neither team leading by more than four.
Whaley, who had missed all four of his 3-point attempts this season, buried a clutch shot from beyond the arc to tie the game at 56-all with 1:03 remaining in regulation. The Huskies had three chances to try to win the game but misfired each time.
In overtime, the Huskies took charge behind Whaley and Cole who combined for 10 of their team's 14 points.
Left open up top, Whaley drained a 3-pointer for a 59-56 edge and Cole added two free throws. Later, Cole made two more free throws to cap a 9-1 run and make it 65-57 with about a minute on the clock. It was their biggest lead of the game.
The Huskies survived another fierce battle and know a lot more about their team than before heading to the Bahamas.
"That we can be really good," Hurley said when asked about what he learned. "We've got things that we've got to tie up. We've got to mature in terms of our execution coming out of timeouts. There's got to be a concentration and focus on defensive scouting things and on our own execution things.
"First play of the game, we walked through it at 8:30 this morning, talked about it in the pre-game and then drew it up in the huddle and we had two guys in the wrong spot to start the game.
"So, we've got to grow up. We're relying on some young players."