UConn receives an unexpected lift from 'Pork Chop'

UConn's Isaiah Whaley (5) and Tyler Polley (12) defend against New Hampshire's Jayden Martinez (24) during the second half of a game on Nov. 24, 2018, in Hartford. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
UConn's Isaiah Whaley (5) and Tyler Polley (12) defend against New Hampshire's Jayden Martinez (24) during the second half of a game on Nov. 24, 2018, in Hartford. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Memphis, Tenn. — With frontcourt foul trouble on Thursday, UConn coach Dan Hurley turned to "Pork Chop" to help the Huskies.

Pork Chop, the nickname for 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Isaiah Whaley, responded with his best game of the season.

In a productive season-high 11 minutes, Whaley chipped in a career-high tying eight points and a season-high tying four rebounds before fouling out in UConn's 80-73 win over South Florida in American Athletic Conference tournament first round action at FedExForum.

"Pork Chop was ready today," Hurley said.

Up until Thursday, Whaley had been basically glued to the bench, playing a total of 67 minutes in 21 appearances, before being called on when starter Josh Carlton encountered early foul trouble. Carlton was limited to just 16 minutes, finishing with zero points, six rebounds and four blocks.

In the first half alone, Whaley had six points and four rebounds in seven minutes.

"It feels good," Whaley said. "I've been just sitting on the bench and watching. I've been wanting to get out there and help a lot. Just being able to contribute feels good."

Whaley has been stuck behind Carlton and reserve Eric Cobb in the rotation, averaging 0.5 points and one rebound in 3.2 minutes per game. He saw seven minutes of action in the season opener but played no more than five minutes in a game during the regular season.

"It's tough," Hurley said. "Josh is our most improved player in the conference and he is a guy we're trying to build with, short-term and long-term. Eric earned that backup spot. Isaiah was hurt a lot in the preseason and even in the early part of the season.

"... But Isaiah is a such a high character guy and he's a pretty smart player and we tipped him off the last couple days. I know these guys have been talking to him. I know Jalen (Adams) talked to him about being ready."

Whaley has tried to remain positive while waiting for his opportunity to contribute.

"It's been tough, especially when I went down early with my (ankle) injury and fell back in the rotation," Whaley said. "The whole time I was just trying to keep myself ready for moments like this and just stay positive and help motivate my teammates and bring the best out of them."

Houston up next

• UConn now faces the herculean task of trying to beat top-seeded Houston (29-2), the regular season champion and 11th-ranked team in the country. The quarterfinal game starts at noon on Friday.

The Cougars feature a deep and talented lineup that includes all-conference first team pick Corey Davis, Jr., and DeJon Jarreau, the AAC sixth man of the year. Kelvin Sampson was named the league's coach of the year.

On top of that, the Huskies went 0-7 this season against the top five teams in the conference.

The two teams met just once during the regular season, with UConn dropping a 71-63 decision on Feb. 14 in Hartford. The Huskies played without the starting backcourt of Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert. They trailed by just three at halftime and then fell behind by 17.

Junior Christian Vital had 15 points, redshirt freshman Sidney Wilson 12 and Tarin Smith 10 to power UConn while Jarreau led Houston with 18 points.

"It will be a tough challenge," Adams said. "We are ready for it. Our guys held their own in the first matchup without two starters, and I think the confidence is going to go through the roof with me coming back. We'll see what happens."

Vital added: "We got Jalen back, so I like our chances."

UConn won the only previous AAC tournament meeting, scoring a 74-65 win in the 2017 quarterfinals in Hartford.

News and notes

• After going 0-for-15 from 3-point land in a two-point win over USF on March 3, UConn hit a season-high 13 out of 24 attempts on Thursday. Vital went 6-for-9. "We let Vital get loose a little bit," USF coach Brian Gregory said. "They made some tough ones that were contested." ... Adams (19 points) moved into 10th place on the school's all-time scoring list with 1,691 points, passing Wes Biakosuknia. He needs 20 to break AAC career scoring record owned by Houston's Rob Gray (1,710). ... Vital's 25 points represented a personal postseason best. ... Huskies improved to 11-4 in AAC tournament play, owning more wins than any other program. They are 3-0 vs. USF, also beating the Bulls in 2015 and 2017. ... The Huskies, who led 39-26 at the break, are now 16-2 when leading at halftime. ... UConn now 10-0 when shooting 50 percent or better. They made 54.3 percent from the field. ... UConn set two tournament records in the first half, sinking nine 3-pointers and shooting 66.7 percent (14-for-21) from the field.

g.keefe@theday.com

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