What we learned from UConn’s men’s overtime victory over VCU in Battle 4 Atlantis

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It wasn’t pretty, but there was very little chance that it would.

UConn, possibly fatigued after 90 minutes of basketball against a pair of tough teams the previous two days and certainly harassed by VCU’s harassing defense, held on for a 70-63 overtime win over the Rams in of their Battle 4 Atlantis finale on Friday.

The 22nd-ranked Huskies have won two of the three games and finished third in the tournament held in the Bahamas. Sixth-place Baylor defeated Michigan State in the championship game leading up to UConn’s game.

“We wanted to play against Baylor in this 11 hour game,” said senior guard RJ Cole. “We couldn’t come out here without two wins.”


“We wanted to play against Baylor (Friday),” added coach Dan Hurley. “But, I can live with this trip.”

UConn trailed four with 3:21 left in regulation, but tied with a 3-point pointer to Isaiah Whaley with 1:05 left.

The Huskies built a seven-point lead and held on in overtime to move to 6-1 this season.

Cole led the way with 26 points and Whaley, who passed out at the end of UConn’s double-overtime victory over Auburn on Wednesday and missed Thursday’s loss to Michigan State, added 16, including his three first 3 points of the season.

Andre Jackson added 14 rebounds for the Huskies. Top scorer Adama Sanogo, struggling with fouling issues, finished with just six points on a 2-on-3 shot but picked up seven rebounds.

UConn shot only 33% (20 for 60) from the ground and 29% (7 for 24) from a 3 point range. But VCU was no better, shooting 35% overall and 24% over 3s.

The Huskies committed 22 turnovers and much of the game turned into a whistling seranade as 45 fouls – one foul per minute – were called between the two teams. Much of this was due to VCU’s pressure defense. The Rams entered game seventh nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

In the first half, UConn was 6 for 28 from the ground, missed 12 consecutive shots and was down 28-20 when Whaley started a 6-0 run in the final 28 seconds of the first half with a recoil.

Jalen Gaffney followed with a steal and a transition layup, and after VCU missed a 3-pointer, Cole was fouled trying to lift a three-quarter shot with 0.01 seconds on the clock. Cole made two of three free throws to bring UConn down to a pair (28-26) at the break.

VCU fell to 3-4, but it’s certainly not a snap. The Rams gave sixth-ranked Baylor the Battle 4 Atlantis champion his toughest challenge of the young season on Thursday in an eight-point loss. Of course, VCU also has losses against Wagner and Chattanooga on their CVs.

“It’s a major program that has really won us over,” Hurley said of the Rams. “But we figured out how to win.”

Here’s what we learned about the Huskies in Friday’s important, if unattractive, win:

UNDER PRESSURE

The Huskies struggled against pressure from Auburn late in the game in Wednesday’s double win and had a lot of trouble against VCU as well. Cole is the best ball handler on the team, but he’s not much of a press breaker on his own. Gaffney has some control, but players like Jackson, Tyrese Martin and freshman Jordan Hawkins must take over. Maybe freshman Rahsool Diggins can help out at some point as well.

“Obviously the way we handle the pressure, we have a lot of work to do,” said Hurley. “We did things with the ball today that were incredibly weird… it’s a bit of an Achilles heel for us. We don’t have a lot of handling guards. So pressure is an issue. for us. It’s gonna have to really work on it. We don’t have the guards to just dribble through, or give it to a guy who can just put pressure on his heels.

And it will only be more difficult for the Huskies in the next games against West Virginia (December 8), Marquette (December 21) and St. John’s (January 12).

WHALEY CAN STRIKE FROM A DISTANCE

Hurley has spent most of the offseason advocating for Whaley (and Akok Akok and the team’s other forwards) to shoot more than 3 points. He set a goal for Whaley to hit around 30 3s (about one per game) this season.

Whaley had been 0-for-4 from range at the start of Friday’s game, but went 3-for-3 against VCU, including some huge ones late in rule and in overtime.

“I felt like if I hit a 3 then I was going to feel a lot more confident to shoot the others,” Whaley said.

“I’m telling you, he makes them,” Hurley added. “If you were around us everyday and you see it in the summer, the guy does them. It didn’t translate into court, but I’m telling you, it does. He has a good exit, he has a good rotation. If we could ever get that from him, which he is capable of, it will open the field so much offensively for us.

COLE EMERGING AS A GUARDIAN

After Thursday’s loss to Michigan State, Hurley took Cole aside and told him he needed to be more assertive, particularly highlighting a late-game play where he gave the ball to Jackson which ultimately led to a expensive turnover.

“’You have to drag this out and do what a UConn goalie would do in this situation, go try and take that shot to put the game out of the way,” Hurley told Cole. “And he’s been doing this all day today.”

Cole on Friday shot 7 for 17 from the floor, hit a 3-point trio and made 9 of 10 free throws. He scored 3 points with 6:15 left in regulation to tie the score at 47 and converted a stipulated play at 3 points less than a minute later to tie it again at 50.

WHALEY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT GUY

Whaley’s most defining game of the season was punctuated by a layup, foul and free throw with four seconds remaining that sealed the victory and gave him a header against the post of the basket to celebrate / relieve.

He grabbed four rebounds, blocked two shots and had two interceptions in another general effort.

“He’s not our best all-around player,” said Hurley, “but he’s our most important player… The victory only started at UConn after his exit.”

ALWAYS RANKED?

Had UConn beaten Michigan State on Thursday and played Baylor in Friday’s championship game, the Huskies could have ended up in the top 10 or 15 teams in the AP Top 25 poll on Monday at noon. A win over Baylor would have almost secured a place in the Top 10.

As it stands, UConn will likely stay at least at No.22, depending on this weekend’s other results. The Huskies are unlikely to drop out of the standings.

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