UConn men cruise to 80-62 Big East win over Marquette
Storrs — This is what a team with NCAA tournament aspirations is supposed to do in late February when every game counts times 10.
UConn is looking more and more like it deserves to participate in March Madness after mauling Marquette, 80-62, in a Big East game on Saturday at Gampel Pavilion.
The Huskies haven't locked up anything yet, but they're getting closer.
Winners of four of its last five, UConn (12-6, 9-6) moved into third place in the Big East and secured a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
The Huskies are right on track in year three of coach Dan Hurley's rebuilding project.
"We've come a long way," Hurley said. "I don't think people understand how far we've come in three years to this point. Obviously, we've got a lot further to go to get it to the level that this place belongs at.
"... To go into a new league where we were just getting our bearings in the old league and then deal with all the injury stuff and to still be in the position we're in, these kids deserve so much credit. They've done an incredible job. Incredible."
Playing well on both ends of the court, UConn stormed to its biggest halftime lead (17) of the season and never let Marquette (11-13, 6-11) get any closer than 11 points in the second half.
The Huskies shot a season high for a Big East game at 51.6 percent from the field and limited the Golden Eagles to 39.3 percent. They forced 15 turnovers and committed a season-low seven.
"Good win," Hurley said. "This was a game that we really needed to be at our best defensively and be sharp offensively."
They successfully navigated some frontcourt foul trouble and the loss of senior Josh Carlton, who had to be helped off the court early in the second half after rolling his ankle. Bench players like freshman Andre Jackson, who had a career-high for points and rebounds with eight in each category, senior Tyler Polley (nine points) and sophomore Jalen Gaffney (four points, four assists) made key contributions.
'We have a pretty deep team," redshirt junior R.J. Cole said. "That's one of our strong points, so when somebody goes down we have enough that we can replace them with somebody else and they can hold down the fort until the one in foul trouble comes back in."
The dynamic backcourt duo of Cole and sophomore James Bouknight led the charge, finishing with 21 and 24 points, respectively. They accounted for 27 of the team's 42 points in the second half.
UConn is dealing with the big-game pressure just fine. The Huskies are taking the mindset and approach from practice and applying it on game day.
"I feel more pressure when I go into a coach Hurley practice than when I go into a game, and that's the honest truth," said Bouknight, who had his third straight game of 20 points or more. "The way we practice and the approach we take in practice prepares us for this.
"Whenever we play bad, that's just on us. I feel like we're ready for every game. We always have the right game plan and coach always sets us up to succeed. We just came out today and we just gave it all we had."
UConn seized the lead for good and built a 10-point lead late in the first half with a momentum-turning 19-4 run. Cole, who averaged 15.6 points in the previous five games, continued his fine offensive play. He buried a 3-pointer and then finished off a tough drive to push the lead to 25-15.
The Huskies were just warming up.
Polley's 3-pointer handed the Huskies a 38-21 edge at intermission. The Golden Eagles had more turnovers (10) than field goals (eight) at that point.
It was the Cole and Bouknight Show in the second half, as they combined to score UConn's first 21 points. Any time Marquette hinted at a making comeback, one of the two guards delivered.
After UConn's lead slipped to 52-41, Cole buried a 3-pointer. When the gap dipped to 12, Bouknight tipped in a basket.
"R.J. and James kept making plays," Hurley said.
Freshman Adama Sanogo's hook shot in the lane with 8:42 remaining was the first basket by someone not named Bouknight or Cole.
"Today we played really well together and we just hope that we can keep this up," Bouknight said. "I feel like we're the best backcourt in the Big East and one of the best in the country, without a doubt."
The Huskies improved to 8-2 with Bouknight in the lineup.
With the win, UConn climbed to No. 28 in the Pomeroy College Basketball ratings. The Huskies entered the game sitting at No. 42 in the NCAA NET Rankings.
When asked about being on the bubble, Hurley responded: "I look for people that have us in a better position. It's good for my mental health."
They have two more big regular-season games remaining, visiting Seton Hall Wednesday and hosting Georgetown Saturday.