Diarra fuels UConn basketball to blowout win over DePaul

Jan. 2—STORRS — Veteran Hassan Diarra is on the quiet side and usually blends in with his UConn basketball teammates off the court.

But he was easy to spot on Tuesday.

With his team trying to shake off the post-holiday break rust and badly needing a spark, Diarra came off the bench and ignited the Huskies with his inspired play.

WIth Diarra leading the way, No. 4 UConn took off midway through the first half and pulled away for an 85-56 win over Big East foe DePaul at Gampel Pavilion in its first game since Dec. 23.

"Hass was impactful all over the court," coach Dan Hurley said.

By beating the Blue Demons for the 17th straight meeting in the series, the Huskies climbed to 12-2 overall, 2-1 in the Big East.

Earlier this season, Hurley called Diarra the most important player on the team. By that he basically meant that the Huskies need the veteran guard to make a consistent contribution in order to be successful this season.

Diarra certainly delivered on Tuesday, finishing a season high 14 points to go with five assists and five rebounds. He also made a season-high three 3-pointers.

"I just want to go out there and be myself, be energetic," Diarra said. "Do whatever the team needs. Make effort plays and be solid on defense, and make winning plays out there."

Cam Spencer scored a team-high 20 points while Alex Karaban had 17 points and seven rebounds.

Freshman Stephon Castle scored in double figures for the first time since Nov. 11 against Stonehill, chipping in 14 points as well as seven assists and four rebounds. While he's made a valuable contribution, he struggled offensively in the previous five games since returning from a knee injury.

The Huskies are searching for more help from the supporting cast with starting center Donovan Clingan expected to be out for at least a few more weeks with a foot injury. He's already been sidelined for two games.

At the start, they looked like a team that hadn't played a game before Christmas.

They committed four turnovers in their first five possessions and missed four of their first six shots.

Ten and a half minutes into the game, UConn trailed 12-11 against a team picked to finish last in the Big East preseason coaches' poll. The Huskies had as many made field goals as turnovers at six.

"We were trying to do the right things offensively," Hurley said. "We couldn't get our rhythm and our timing."

Known for his disruptive defense, Diarra also provided an offensive spark after entering the game for Tristen Newton who went to the bench with his second foul. Fellow starter Samson Johnson also missed time due to foul trouble, forcing Hurley to switch to a four-guard lineup.

The momentum began to turn in UConn's favor when freshman Solo Ball scored five straight points to hand the Huskies the lead for good.

UConn scored nine straight points and went on a 16-2 run overall.

Diarra played a big role in the outburst.

He scored a driving basket and made a free throw to complete the 3-point play. Then he buried a 3-pointer for a 24-13 edge. He was just 4 for 18 from beyond the arc entering the game.

"He really sparked that run we went on," Spencer said. "For the first 12 minutes of the game, I thought we were pretty sloppy, especially on the offensive end. We played good defense to keep us in it.

"When Hass and Solo came in and really sparked us off the bench with transition plays, rebounds, defense, it really just lifted us and gave us the lead. Really proud of him."

The Huskies had finally found their offensive rhythm.

After missing their first three shots, they went 15 for 22 to finish the half and take a 38-19 lead. Diarra had six points, 1.2 points more than his season average — and five assists at the break.

From there, UConn looked like UConn and DePaul like DePaul.

The Huskies finished shooting a sizzling 58.2 from the field and made 12 of 26 3-point attempts.

They won easily despite Newton, the team's leading scorer at 16.2 points per game prior to Tuesday, going scoreless for the first time this season and second time in his two seasons in Storrs. He went 0 for 3 from the field.

Hurley praised his team's defense, which limited DePaul to 35.7 percent from the field.

"Overall, the defense made some strides," Hurley said. "I thought we were a little more disruptive."

Next up, UConn heads out on the road, visiting Butler in Indianapolis on Friday night.

DePaul fell to 3-10 overall, 0-2 in the Big East.