No Bouknight, no problem as UConn men beat Butler 72-60
Struggling to regain his confidence and relocate his sharpshooting perimeter game, senior Tyler Polley received a pep talk from coach Dan Hurley around the Christmas break.
Since then, Polley has had a can't miss look in his eyes when taking a jumper, including Saturday's game at Butler.
For the second straight road game, Polley's torrid shooting helped lift UConn to victory. He scored a game-high 19 points and converted five 3-pointers in a 72-60 Big East win at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Polley is enjoying the best two-game scoring stretch of his career, averaging 21 points while sinking 13 of 22 field goals, including 10 of 16 from 3-point range.
So what did Hurley say to Polley to help the forward find his groove?
"You've got the ultimate green light," Hurley said. "If he can get it off, he probably should shoot it."
Polley has followed Hurley's advice, and that's good news for the Huskies. He's back to playing like he did before his season-ending knee injury last January.
"That helped me a lot just to know the coaching staff and coach Hurley still believes in me," Polley said of his conversation with Hurley. "When they told me that, that gave me confidence. I knew they had my back."
The Huskies (6-1, 3-1) needed Polley and his teammates to deliver with Big East leading scorer James Bouknight sitting out with a hyperextended left elbow that he suffered in Tuesday's win at Marquette.
UConn's depth paid off once again.
Junior Tyrese Martin played an important role, finishing with 15 points, a team-high tying seven rebounds and three assists. He had season-high three 3-pointers.
Junior Brendan Adams, who started in place of Bouknight, and senior Isaiah Whaley each added nine points. Redshirt junior R.J. Cole chipped in seven points and a season-high seven rebounds.
The Huskies were on target from the perimeter, sinking 10 of 21 3-pointers. They never trailed after taking a 4-3 advantage and led by as many as 19 in the second half.
"James is one of the best players in the country," Hurley said. "His loss is only going to be filled while he's out with our strength, which is depth. We've got a lot of guys that can step up and do it on a given night.
"Obviously, Tyler and Tyrese offensively and others. Brendan Adams quietly had a really, really good game. And Whaley's nine points don't tell the story of his impact."
In the short term, you can argue that playing without Bouknight is good for UConn. It is forcing other players to step up.
Of course, for the Huskies to be a contender for a Big East regular-season title, they need a healthy Bouknight. There's no word on when Bouknight will return.
Hurley gave an evasive answer to the question about Bouknight's status.
"We're just kind of dealing with that right now from the road with Zoom calls with doctors," Hurley said. "Obviously, we've got to be really smart with all of our players. ... We've been communicating with doctors to make sure we do the right thing in terms of when we can get him back."
As long as Polley stays hot, the Huskies should have a chance to win any game.
Early in the first half on Saturday, Polley came off the bench and jump-started the UConn attack by burying his first 3-pointer. He had 12 points in the first half and drilled four of five attempts from beyond the arc, as the Huskies seized a 33-28 edge.
The Huskies remained in command in the second half. Cole's basket extended the edge to 56-37 with 10:20 left.
A stagnant Butler offense finally found its footing. The Bulldogs (3-6, 2-4) went on an 11-2 run to cut the gap to 58-48 with around seven minutes remaining.
Polley seized the momentum back by hitting a 3-pointer and sinking two free throws for a 63-50 advantage. The Huskies closed it out from there.
Polley, who's been primarily a starter during his career, is thriving in his relatively new role as a super sub.
"I've embraced my role on the team," Polley said. "Just to be that hot hand and come out firing off the bench, I love it. You can't ask for anything more."
The Huskies also received a boost from the return of redshirt sophomore Akok Akok, who made his season debut. Akok, who's been out since rupturing his Achilles tendon last Feb. 16, dunked home his first shot about midway through the first half for his only basket in six minutes of action.
"An emotional lift for all of us," Hurley said. "Losing James, Akok being welcomed back was a nice lift for everyone. The dunk that he got was a play that charged everybody up."
It was a feel-good moment for Akok.
"It was a great moment in my career," Akok said. "A special day. I've been waiting for this for a long time. There were a lot of nerves in the air my first game back. As soon as I got in the game, I got over it."
The Huskies, who've won their first two road games for the first time since the 2015-16 season, will complete their trip on Monday in Chicago against DePaul.
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