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How Alex Karaban, UConn’s veterans rebounded from ‘super sloppy’ first half to beat Butler

INDIANAPOLIS – The UConn men’s basketball team went into the locker room at halftime on Friday trailing for just the fourth time this season, and knew it needed to count on its veterans.

The first half was “super sloppy,” as Alex Karaban put it, too much for the sold out Hinkle Fieldhouse crowd to cheer about, and the Huskies found themselves down seven to Butler.

“The coaches, they emphasized that we work too damn hard, we work our asses off every day and what we did in the first half was really embarrassing,” said Karaban, who’s becoming the veteran leader of the team as a redshirt sophomore. “Just the work that we put in, the time, the dedication, the sacrifices, everything that the coaches do in this program, everything that we do in the program, that’s not our best quality.

“So we knew we had to flip the switch. We knew, with the veteran guys that we have on the team, the young talented players, that we’re more than capable of a bigger half.”

The switch was flipped.

Cam Spencer’s clutch 3-pointer helps UConn men survive Butler, 88-81, for first true road win

UConn scored 53 points in the second half, missed only 10 shots from the field and grabbed offensive rebounds on six of them. The Huskies erased the seven-point deficit rather quickly and battled out the rest of the half, finally building a lead of as many as eight and leaving with an 88-81 win.

“They made some of the timeliest plays I’ve seen, which they do, I think they’re No. 1 in the country scoring with six seconds and under on the shot clock, and they did a great job of that tonight,” Butler head coach Thad Matta said. “We came out and got stunned in the second.”

As for the veterans, Karaban scored 15 after the break, Tristen Newton scored 10, Hassan Diarra had nine and Cam Spencer, who made a clutch 3-pointer to all-but seal the win in the final minute, also had nine. Stephon Castle, “not a typical freshman,” according to Karaban, added eight with five rebounds after halftime.

“Second half showed a lot of the residuals from the championship, just in the DNA of the group and (we) just found a way to get it done,” coach Dan Hurley said. “I thought Karaban was obviously fantastic and Cam sealed it with a huge shot.”

Happy birthday, Mrs. Karaban

Karaban called his mom, Olga, Friday morning and told her he’d get her a win for her birthday.

“That’s all she wanted,” he said.

Making sure his mom got her wish, Karaban led the team with 20 points and had five rebounds before fouling out of the game with 92 seconds left, the Huskies up by six.

“I knew with the role that I have on this team this year that I had to step up. I mean, first half, stupid fouls I did. I need to stop doing stupid fouls, but at the same time, just elevate my play, elevate my leadership and elevate others around me,” he said.

Like the other veterans who Hurley has been urging to use their voice more, Karaban has taken it on himself, especially in the last three games with his roommate, Donovan Clingan, sidelined with a foot injury. He’s had to fill in at the center spot in the small-ball lineup when backup Samson Johnson needs rest on the bench and, for the most part, has delivered exactly what the Huskies have needed.

“He’ll never get the credit because he’s not a bozo on social media, doing all the (stuff) that all these people now do in sports. He’s just a problem solver, he’s an every day guy, he’s becoming a better leader, he’s maybe the smartest player in the country,” Hurley said after Karaban scored 17 with seven rebounds against DePaul on Tuesday. “He solves so many things out on the court. The example he sets with work ethic and in the classroom, and just everything that he does, I mean he’s like too good to be true. It’s gonna suck when he’s done here.”

Winning on the glass

In the second half, UConn down by one, Castle kicked the ball out from under the basket to Spencer on the 3-point line. Spencer’s shot hit the back rim and missed, and Castle dove for the rebound and passed it back to Spencer while he fell to the floor. Spencer found Newton for a 3-point attempt that missed and secured the offensive board, then got the ball back to Newton, who drove and dumped the ball off to Johnson to finish the layup.

Those possessions, the relentless effort and the winning plays, were the difference in the game and what could be the difference for the Huskies moving forward. UConn has the best rebound margin in the conference (plus-10.17), and it isn’t particularly close. Only two other teams, Creighton (plus-8.64) and St. John’s (plus-7.57), have a margin of more than five.

UConn outrebounded Butler, 33-24, and 11-8 on the offensive end for the game. In just the second half, UConn grabbed 17 total rebounds to the Bulldogs’ eight, and scored five second-chance points to Butler’s zero with a 6-2 advantage on the offensive glass.

The biggest offensive rebound of the game came from Spencer, just before his 3-pointer that served as the dagger. He called a timeout before falling out of bounds to set up the critical second possession.

“I think they all matter,” he said. “We had multiple guys make plays like that down the stretch.”