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No. 22 UConn men’s basketball takes down No. 19 Auburn 115-109 in double-overtime thriller at Battle 4 Atlantis

Hartford Courant logoHartford Courant 4 days ago Alexa Philippou, Hartford Courant

The UConn men’s basketball team knew its Battle 4 Atlantis tournament opener Wednesday against No. 19 Auburn would be its toughest test yet.

Little did they, or the rest of us, predict how trying, yet remarkable, that showdown would be for coach Dan Hurley’s squad: a double-overtime instant classic in which the No. 22 Huskies had to claw their way back after squandering a 15-point second-half advantage, three of their starters fouled out and relinquishing a late lead in the first overtime to come away with the 115-109 victory for one of the program’s biggest wins under Hurley.

It was UConn’s first ranked win since March 5, 2020 versus No. 21 Houston. Hurley is now 4-11 against ranked teams as head coach at UConn.

The Huskies (5-0) meet Michigan State (4-1) on Thursday at noon in their second game of the tournament, the winner advancing to the championship game.

If you thought a little adversity would scare away a hungry UConn team with a chance to prove themselves as a national power once more, you thought wrong.

“The program’s been through a lot. We’ve had to climb these last couple years. We were horrible a couple years ago, and we’re finally climbing this mountain and getting good again and starting to resemble UConn again,” Hurley said.

“And we’re not going to let you knock us off that easily when we’re trying so hard to get this thing back to where UConn should be. So you’ve got to try to kill us to beat us.”

Roaring back after a quiet two games, sophomore forward Adama Sanogo led the Huskies with a career-high 30 points, the third time this season he’s hit at least 20. Graduate students R.J. Cole and Tyler Polley added 24 apiece — Polley on 6 of 9 shooting from 3, including the clutch trey with 14 seconds left in regulation that turned a one-point UConn deficit into a two-point lead. Freshman Jordan Hawkins was also a bright spot with a career-high 16 points (5-7 shooting, 3-4 on 3s). UConn shot a blistering 58% from 3 (15-for-26).

The Huskies managed to win despite Tyrese Martin, Andre Jackson and Isaiah Whaley fouling out at the end of regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime, respectively.

For Auburn (3-1), K.D. Johnson put up 27, followed by 22 for Jabari Smith and 19 for Wendell Green Jr.

“That was a special game, that was a special nonconference game,” Hurley said. “The amount of shotmaking and playmaking and athleticism and skill and will, obviously two teams that are going to have the potential to have a great, great year and can see each other in the NCAA Tournament.”

A boisterous crowd of 1,174 showed up at Imperial Arena, including an especially well-traveled Auburn group complete with cheerleaders and Aubie the mascot.

UConn found early success with Sanogo, who scored its first 10 points. But the team otherwise looked discombobulated, turning over the ball way too much and only managing to score through the sophomore forward. While the defense held stout, the Huskies suddenly faced an 11-point deficit when Green caught fire with three straight 3s.

Following a pivotal timeout at the 11:25 mark, UConn used a 35-13 run to close the half with a 45-34 edge. They rattled off 13 unanswered points, including eight from Polley off the bench, and a layup from Hawkins gave the Huskies their first lead since 6-4. Auburn briefly retook the lead before the Huskies started raining their own threes, one from Martin and three alone from Hawkins. Including Hawkins’ “electrifying” run, as Hurley called it, the team as a whole went 8-12 from the perimeter in the first 20 minutes.

Back from the break, the Huskies briefly extended their lead to 15 off a dunk from Martin, but the second half was mostly Auburn doubling down its defensive pressure to narrow the gap. UConn’s offense balked in the face of Auburn’s press, coughing up the ball over and over again. The Huskies would ultimately finish with a season-high 24 turnovers.

UConn went over five minutes without a field goal and roughly 10 with just one make from the field, Cole’s 3 to put UConn up by nine. But the Tigers responded with a 13-2 run, capped by a Smith 3, to go back ahead. After Martin fouled out, the Huskies found themselves with the ball, down one, with 29 seconds on the clock running a play out of a timeout. Cole drew a foul to get to the line, but went 1-2. Whaley kept UConn’s championship hopes alive by securing the offensive rebound and dishing it to Jackson, who found Polley for a 3 to propel UConn ahead by two with 14 seconds remaining.

Then came squandered opportunity No. 1: Johnson forced overtime with a layup with four seconds to go and the Huskies couldn’t connect on their last-ditch effort.

“We just tried to stay connected, tried to stay calm,” Polley said. “Mainly just tried to stay together out there. We knew they weren’t going to give up and we knew they were going to keep fighting. We just had to weather the storm and keep pushing and trying to get the win.”

After Cole’s second-chance 3-pointer with 22 seconds left in the first overtime put UConn ahead by four, it seemed like that could be the game-winner. But Auburn hit a pair from the line and then Hawkins had a freshman moment at the worst time, turning the ball over as the Huskies tried to break the press and allowing that Tigers to score on the other end to send the game into double overtime.

“I definitely felt numerous times we could have had the game won,” Cole said. “We continued to just talk to each other and keep pushing, knowing that it’s not going to be easy, and we’re going to have to fight for this one to get the win.”

Polley and Sanogo carried the team down the stretch in the second OT, scoring the squad’s first 14 points and catapulting the Huskies ahead for good. Polley hit a pair of 3s and two free throws and Sanogo finally found his touch under the rim after some struggles at the end of regulation and the first overtime to push the Huskies in front by nine.

“He’s a special player and his work ethic is becoming legendary in our program with his daily routine and everything he puts into this thing,” Hurley said of Sanogo. “He comes from a great background. His pedigree is amazing, his family and so just knew he had the character to handle the storms that arise during the game.”

Auburn pulled within four after Whaley fouled a three-point shooter (and fouled out), but Gaffney snagged the defensive rebound off an Auburn miss, and his ensuing pair of free throws allowed UConn to finally come away with the win.

“Just a multitude of things that went on that were mind-boggling, mind-numbing,” Hurley said about the team’s execution from the end of regulation through the second overtime. “The good thing is as a staff, we won’t even have to watch this game today. We’ll watch when we get home because now we get to focus on Michigan State. I don’t want to relive that today.”

Whaley scare

Whaley had a scare at the end of the game when he appeared to pass out at the UConn bench. The paramedics were called over but he got up under his own power quickly and proceeded with the team through the high-five line.

“He had a fainting episode,” Hurley said. “I think he just stood up too quick. I mean, the dude did play 43 minutes of incredible defense versus a top-five pick [Smith]. So I just think he got up too quick.”

Whaley told ESPN’S Karl Ravech after the game that the issue was dehydration.

“UConn forward Isaiah Whaley experienced a combination of end-of-game excitement, fatigue and dehydration, which caused him to feel light-headed and dizzy and led to a fainting spell in front of the UConn bench at the conclusion of Wednesday’s game,” the school said in a statement later in the evening. “He recovered almost immediately, and the UConn athletic training and medical staff has determined there is no cause for concern.”

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com

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