UConn men's basketball routs Butler as Dan Hurley returns to sidelines

Photo of David Borges

HARTFORD — Dan Hurley was back, even if muzzled by a mask following a bout with COVID-19. Kimani Young, too.

Samson Johnson was back, returning to game action for the first time since suffering a stress reaction in his right foot more than two months ago.

Perhaps most importantly, the UConn men's basketball team's swagger was back on Sunday afternoon at XL Center in an 86-56 rout of Butler. 

For the first time in 2023, the Huskies put together a full 40 minutes where they resembled the wagon that was ranked No. 2 in the nation less than a month ago. Adama Sanogo notched a double-double, Jordan Hawkins scored a game-high 20 points, Tristen Newton took it to the hole with authority and Alex Karaban remained perhaps the team's most consistent player.

Ah yes, and Donovan Clingan continued to infuse productivity off the bench, as did Hassan Diarra. Heck, even the walk-ons finally got some run for the first time in a Big East game this season.

In short, on the heels of losses in three straight games and five of their prior six, 15th-ranked UConn needed this. Badly.

"Obviously, great to be back, missed being out there with the boys, you know?," said Hurley, who missed Wednesday night's crushing loss at Seton Hall after testing positive for COVID the day before. "It was good to see us kind of resemble, at times, the team that we've been for a much larger part of the season than the last couple of weeks."

"Some of the suffering that's gone on the last couple of weeks," he added, "hopefully will produce more of these types of games from us."

Hurley and Young, the associate head coach who also missed Wednesday's game, wore masks throughout the entire game. 

"It brought back some very jarring memories," Hurley said. "My glasses were getting foggy ... Knowing where the team was at, plus putting that mask on was just the perfect storm, man. Perfect storm."

Hurley noted that the negativity that's surrounded the team over the past couple of weeks — on social media, message boards, etc. — has been noticed by the players and "it's affected these guys in a major way."

Certainly, the announced sellout crowd was noticeably a bit more tepid during pregame introductions. The groans from the crowd when Sanogo took too long to pass out of the low post were audible. Changes to the lineup that Hurley seemed to indicate could be on the horizon didn't happen: the same starting lineup of Karaban, Sanogo, Hawkins, Newton and Andre Jackson Jr. was rolled out for the 13th straight game.

Clingan, Diarra and Joey Calcaterra entered the game a bit earlier than usual, however, and helped turn an 8-5 lead into a 24-13 advantage, capped by a Karaban layup off a nifty pass from Clingan.

This time, there was no drop-off when the starters re-entered. In fact, Sanogo hit Newton on a nice pass for a cutting layup to help spearhead a 12-0 UConn run. Diarra had nine rebounds and nine points at the break, and UConn held a 45-23 lead.

"It was a matter of staying focused," Karaban noted, "because the coaches did remind us what happened at Seton Hall."

The Huskies had squandered a 17-point first-half lead and 14-point halftime bulge in that loss to the Hall. But after jumping out to a 9-0 start of the latter half, courtesy of Sanogo and Hawkins, it was quickly clear there would be no repeat of that performance.

Sanogo finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds, Karaban scored 15 and Newton contributed 11. Butler fell to 11-10 overall, 3-7 Big East.

With 12:02 left, Johnson entered a game for the first time since the Huskies' Nov. 7 season-opener vs. Stonehill. Certainly, the lengthy, 6-foot-10 sophomore showed some rust, finishing with two points, two rebounds, an assist and a turnover in seven minutes.

But Johnson's return was a good sign for the Huskies, in exactly the type of game the team needed. Badly.

Rim rattlings

Young returned to practice on Friday and Hurley on Saturday, where the players "looked like dogs in an animal shelter. These guys were beaten up." Prior to that, he communicated with the team through Zoom calls.

Hurley was accompanied by a couple of inspirational messages on Saturday. UConn's video crew of Tevin Shears and Mat Johnson put together a video featuring scenes from the 1999 Al Pacino movie "Any Given Sunday", spliced together with clips from the Huskies' recent losing stretch.

One quote from the video stuck out in particular for Hawkins: "We heal as a team, we'll die as individuals."

"I think that's the biggest message," Hawkins noted. 

The Huskies also got a visit from the national championship trophy, sent by the NCAA to a handful of teams during the season. Why UConn was chosen is unknown, though ostensibly the trophy is sent to teams with a chance of hoisting that trophy up in April.

"It's an honor, because that doesn't get sent to everybody," Hawkins noted. "It's just a reminder of what the main goal is, to keep pushing, even during this hard stretch, and better days will come. We looked at that as extra motivation."

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges