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UConn men roll past Maine

Hartford — UConn spends the first hour of every practice working on defense.

Nothing else but defense.

"And then we lead to more defense," redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert said. "It's really something that (coach Dan Hurley) is emphasizing this year."

The Huskies are starting to get the desired results from their hard work.

An aggressive defense helped turn a tight non-conference game into a runaway, as UConn forced Maine into 28 turnovers on the way to a 64-40 victory before 7,129 fans at the XL Center. It's been 19 years since the Huskies forced that many turnovers, accomplishing the feat against Fairfield.

They scored 28 points off the turnovers and also had a season-high 13 steals.

"That's probably the most important thing for us this year is defensive pressure," sophomore Brendan Adams said. "We've got a lot depth so we can run guards and bigs in and out and just keep pressuring the ball."

Adams and freshman James Bouknight provided a spark off the bench, scoring 11 and a team-best 15 points, respectively. Gilbert (13 points) and junior Tyler Polley (12 points) also hit double figures for the Huskies (5-2).

The Huskies entered Sunday's game looking to build on the success that they experienced in the Charleston Classic in South Carolina.

Their performance wasn't a thing of beauty, but did the job. They never trailed and led by as many as 24.

Hurley felt the Huskies didn't take full advantage of their athleticism and edge in talent and depth. They showed signs of immaturity and struggled to finish at the rim, he added.

"I was thrilled with the first two minutes and happier with the last 20...," Hurley said. "Coming out of this, we've got to get better offensively. We're not going to be able to out-tough and out-heart the better teams because all the better teams play really hard.

"... We're not there yet. We've got a lot of work to do."

Up until UConn's pressure defense changed the game early in the second half, Maine (2-5) controlled the tempo, slowing the action down to a crawl. The Huskies, who shot just 38 percent from the field, needed something to lift them out of an offensive funk.

The defense provided the necessary jolt, forcing nine turnovers during a four and a half minute stretch to help ignite a 17-2 spurt that pushed a five-point lead to 20.

The Huskies extended their pressure defense and Maine, which was playing without its starting point guard, crumbled.

Adams was in the middle of the action.

He stole the ball and took off for fast break layup.

Then after making a steal, senior Christian Vital fed Adams who rose up a monster dunk over a Maine player for a 42-30 lead.

"That felt great," Adams said with a smile.

The Huskies kept attacking, building a 52-32 lead with 11:28 left on Jalen Gaffney's steal and transition basket.

They cruised to the finish line from there.

"Coach was emphasizing all week that we need to pressure them and pressure them for 40 minutes," Vital said. "If you didn't do that, you were coming out of the game. It's fun as hell to play like that."

Maine coach Richard Barron called UConn's defense elite. The Black Bears shot an icy 35 percent from the field.

"UConn really came out and got in our shorts and made it tough on us," Barron said.

Expect defense to continue to be the backbone for the Huskies this season. They're embracing Hurley's defensive mindset.

"We practiced hard at it and that's what we're definitely going to keep doing all season," said Adams who finished with a career-best four steals.

Hurley has seen improvement in his team's defense since the beginning of the season. But he's far from satisfied.

"We made a big jump just in terms of numbers," Hurley said. "Akok (Akok) has helped us so much at that end of the court. Guys are a year more experienced and we emphasize it every day.

"Your only chance to play in any type of significant way in March is if you're a top 50 defensive team. And we're right around that number right now in terms of efficiency. I didn't think we were great today. I thought we had some breakdowns and we'll look at it and get it fixed."

News and notes

The Huskies played without reserve Sidney Wilson, who's sidelined with a knee injury. He may be ready to return for Wednesday's game against Iona in Storrs. "We got best case scenario news," Hurley said. "We're hopeful that he'll be able to do more (Monday)." ...  GIlbert, who entered the game shooting 22 percent, made his first two shots -- both three-pointers -- and finished 5 for 8 from the field. "It was just good to see the ball go in," said Gilbert, who had 11 points in the first half.

g.keefe@theday.com

 

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