UConn holds off Maryland Eastern Shore
Hartford — UConn's lackadaisical performance in a harder-than-expected win and some injury concerns put coach Dan Hurley in a sour mood on Tuesday.
Hurley expected a sharper game from his No. 17 Huskies, who struggled to put away heavy underdog Maryland Eastern Shore while earning a difficult 72-63 victory at the XL Center.
Hurley feared that the Huskies might suffer a letdown coming off of playing three fiercely competitive games against quality competition in last week's Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas.
Simply put, they weren't ready to play.
They led by only four with inside of three minutes remaining and held on thanks to the inspired play of veteran guard R.J. Cole, who finished with a game-high 25 points. He scored six of his team's final eight points.
"Obviously, I did a horrible job preparing these guys to play this game," Hurley said. "I will not allow us to look like that again, or else you'll see a different group of people on the court."
The Huskies (7-1) have bigger concerns right now with starters Tyrese Martin and Adama Sanogo dealing with injuries.
Martin, who didn't play on Tuesday, is expected to be out at least two weeks with a left wrist injury. He's wearing a cast.
Hurley said Martin's injury is "a sprain with a little bit of avulsion fracture. ... Maybe like a two to four week timeline potentially, but we feared it could have been far worse. We caught a break."
Martin, the team's toughest player, suffered the injury in the double overtime win over Auburn on Wednesday and still played the last two games of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The Huskies sorely missed Martin on Tuesday, especially on the perimeter where they were badly beaten defensively. They allowed a season-high 47.1 percent from the field.
"Tyrese is a heart and soul guy," Hurley said. "Tyrese and Isaiah (Whaley) are tone-setters with the force and physicality and the athleticism. ... He leaves a significant void on the perimeter that way because we looked soft in a lot of other respects."
"That's a problem. But, again, I've talked about our program depth for a long time. So, there's no excuses for this program in any of these games moving forward. We've got a lot to work on here. We've got to figure out how to go about things from a rotation standpoint with him out. That's a big loss."
There also is some question about the health of leading scorer Sanogo who left the game in the second half with "a lower abdominal thing," according to Hurley.
"We have to see what Adama's injury extent is going to be," Hurley said. "We can't afford that to be something that's long term."
The Huskies survived against the scrappy Hawks (2-5) because of Cole.
Cole has been UConn's most consistent player so far this season. He's scored 24 or more points in three of the last four games.
"Best guard in the league, which is what he is shooting for this year," Hurley said. "He shows up every night. We're obviously going to need others to give us more than what we've got."
Cole recognized that the Huskies needed him to elevate his play and take charge.
"At a point in the beginning of the game, I felt like we were lackadaisical out there," Cole said. "Just being the leader of the team, it was on me to at least try to spark some energy. Eventually, Coach just told me that I had to take over."
Right from the start, the Huskies played with far less energy and enthusiasm than they did in the Bahamas.
It's a safe bet that Hurley talked to his team about a lack of intensity and the cracks in a normally reliable defense at the break, holding a 39-31 lead. The Hawks shot 50 percent (12 for 24) in the first half and out-hustled the Huskies. They were out-rebounded only by three overall despite playing four guards.
Maryland Eastern Shore's perimeter players regularly beat their defenders off the dribble.
"They spread us out," Hurley said. "Their guards overall were able to get to whatever spots they wanted to get to on the court minus R.J. who was really the only perimeter defender that played with any force. ... They made a lot of tough shots and they drove us. They played great.
"We obviously had our issues out there."
Those issues continued for the entire game.
Down by eight, Maryland Eastern Shore scored the first seven points of the second half to cut the gap to 39-38.
From the sidelines, Hurley stood with his arms crossed as his team committed careless turnovers, missed free throws and misfired on open shots.
Veteran forward Isaiah Whaley's inspired play finally helped bring the Huskies to life. His fast break finish pushed the lead to 48-43 and Maryland Eastern Shore called a timeout with 13:37 left.
The Hawks wouldn't go away.
Mike Mensah buried a three from the corner to close the gap to 48-46.
Cole came to the rescue, converting a foul-inducing layup and making the free throw, sparking a game-changing 14-5 spurt.
Freshman Jordan Hawkins, who made his first career start, fired up the bench by converting an acrobatic tip-in off a Sanogo missed free throw for his first points of the game and then drained an open three. Cole's two free throws gave UConn its biggest lead thus far, 62-51, at the 8:10 mark.
The lead nearly got away from the Huskies.
Chace Davis hit a shot in the lane, bringing Maryland Eastern Shore to within four, 66-62, with 3:35 left.
With the shot clock winding down, Cole drew a foul driving to the basket and hit both free throws for a 70-62 edge with 1:51 remaining. He added two more free throws.
Polley finished with 14 points and Whaley added eight points, seven rebounds, five blocks and two steals.
Now the Huskies have a few days to figure out how to play without Martin, starting with Saturday's game versus Grambling State at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs.
"R.J. has been carrying us a lot on both ends these past couple of games, so we have to do a better job helping him out," Polley said. "Guys have to play with confidence."
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