UConn makes it three straight with 80-62 win over Iona

Storrs — UConn passed another toughness test on Wednesday. 

Something that the Huskies struggled to consistently do last season.

An 80-62 win over a strong mid-major program in Iona is another sign the Huskies are trending in the right direction.

The Huskies (6-2) extended their winning streak to three straight games, accomplishing that by beating a team that is favored to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. They broke open a tight game with an 18-2 run to open the second half and fought off every challenge the rest of the way.

More evidence that they've grown as a team in coach Dan Hurley's second year in charge.

"We've had more time as a program to work hard together, to develop relationships, to build trust, to build our character as a team and our culture," Hurley said. "This group is able to not just get through hard practices but embrace them.

"We've just developed a lot more team toughness. ... We trust each other more because we're becoming a real program right now."

UConn's veterans carried the torch in the non-conference game before 5,909 fans at Gampel Pavilion.

Start with junior Josh Carlton, who was as active as he's been all season under the basket and powered his way to season highs in points (19) and rebounds (12) to go with four blocks. Hurley has been encouraging Carlton to finish strong at the rim and the center did just that on several occasions.

"He's been telling me all week just be strong and be a beast around the rim," Carlton said. "I just tried to focus on that."

Senior Christian Vital did most of his offensive damage early, scoring 12 of his 16 points in the first half and added nine rebounds. He played against his former St. Thomas More teammate E.J. Crawford, who had 17 points.

Junior Tyler Polley provided the boost in the game's defining run to open the second half. Polley buried three straight 3-pointers as UConn surged in front 54-37. He scored 12 of his 14 points after intermission.

And redshirt junior point Alterique Gilbert played a near flawless floor game, finishing with 12 points, a season-best 10 assists and just one turnover.

"If we didn't have quality older players, we would have lost," Hurley said.

The Huskies also made some defensive adjustments to help turn the tide, shutting down leading scorers Tajuan Agee and Crawford, who had a combined four points in the second half after totaling 27 before intermission.

UConn owned the second half, outscoring Iona, 44-27. The Huskies increased their defensive intensity, limiting Iona to 33.3 percent from the field after it shot 48.3 percent in the first half.

After leading by as many as 22 points, the Huskies showed some maturity and poise when the Gaels (2-3) used 13-1 run to cut the gap to 64-54 with six minutes left.

UConn didn't buckle. Vital hit a driving basket and drew a foul. He converted the free throw and the Huskies weren't threatened again.

"We're definitely mentally tougher," Gilbert said. "And that started in the summer. The way that coach Hurley coaches us each and every day brings a lot of energy. We just respect it."

UConn only trailed twice in the game, both times in the first half.

For a change, UConn got off to a sizzling start, leading by as many as 11 in the first half before settling for a one-point advantage at intermission. Vital and Carlton carried the Huskies early, scoring 12 and 13 points, respectively.

The Huskies scored the game's first six points and roared out to an 11-2 lead behind Vital who accounted for seven of those points. They made 10 of their first 13 field goals against zone and their advantage grew to 22-11.

But there were some troubling trends developing on the defensive end. Iona used its quickness to beat UConn off the dribble and get to the basket.

Agee and Crawford fueled a 12-0 spurt. Crawford's free throw completed a three-point play and gave the Gaels their first lead, 23-22.

The deficit quickly disappeared.

Carlton's rebound dunk pushed UConn in front for good, 29-27. When Carlton converted a power move inside for a 36-30 edge, Hurley stepped out on the court and flexed.

"I just wanted Josh to go like psycho beast mode there," Hurley said. "I wanted emotion and I wanted him staring at the student section. I wanted him to bring the crowd to its feet and I wanted him to show that he was all man and that he was a beast.

"He didn't do it. I did it."

News and notes

UConn assistant coach Kenya Hunter was on the bench for the first time this season. He's been out with an undisclosed health issue. ... Reserve forward Sidney Wilson, who missed the last game due to a knee injury, returned to action and had two points, three rebounds and two steals in nine minutes... Huskies won the rebounding battle, 44-31, and shot 47 percent. ... Up next: UConn plays Indiana Tuesday in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York.

g.keefe@theday.com

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