NEW YORK – Alex Karaban always had an answer.
The redshirt sophomore scored six consecutive points for the UConn men after Texas cut their lead to just six in the last five minutes of Monday’s Empire Classic championship game. Karaban, who finished with a team-high 20 points, pulled up for a midrange jumper as the shot clock wound down with about a minute left.
“I only heard Tristen (Newton) just yell at me, ‘Shoot it,'” Karaban said.
“The whole bench was yelling ‘shoot it,'” head coach Dan Hurley interjected.
The ball found the bottom of the net and served as the dagger in what was an 81-71 win over the 15th-ranked Longhorns.
UConn, now 5-0, secured the program’s 11th overall tournament win of any kind inside Madison Square Garden and its first since the 2013 2k Sports Classic, when Shabazz Napier went off for 27 points to beat Indiana. The Huskies have won 22 consecutive nonconference games by double-digits – one shy of the all-time record 23 set by North Carolina in 2008-09.
When the record was brought to Hurley’s attention in the postgame press conference, he was shocked.
“We play the day after Thanksgiving so we’re cancelling Thanksgiving. We’re not gonna let these guys eat the turkey, they’ll be all sluggish and (expletive),” he said. “It’s been unbelievable – from the last nonconference season these guys have just been awesome.”
UConn would break the record if it defeats Manhattan and New Hampshire by double-digits on Friday and Monday, respectively.
“I just think the program’s got so much confidence,” Hurley said. “You win a national championship, you step onto the court with just a lot of belief that you’re supposed to win. And we’re pretty relentless, the coaches are relentless, the players are relentless, we’re going to beat you by as many as we can beat you by.”
The Huskies started Monday’s game with exactly that mindset.
When an offensive play was disrupted and the shot clock wasted down, the ball found Karaban in the corner for a 3-pointer that beat the buzzer. When Cam Spencer missed his first shot attempt of the game, Solo Ball soared in and slammed the putback home. UConn made 9 of its first 12 shots from the field and was 4 of 5 from 3-point range to build a dominant, 24-11, lead eight minutes into the first half.
After combining for just four points in Sunday’s win over Indiana, UConn’s veteran duo of Samson Johnson and Hassan Diarra were the difference off the bench as starters Tristen Newton, Donovan Clingan and Spencer struggled to get going.
Johnson finished with a career-high 15 points with eight rebounds and two blocks, while Diarra had eight and six boards with two steals and a pair of blocks of his own.
“Coach always talks about next-man mentality and with Donovan having foul trouble, Steph (Castle) being out, other guys had to step up,” Karaban said. “And those two guys were the most valuable players in this game. Without them we don’t win.”
Midway through the second half, as UConn tried to put Texas away, Diarra stole the ball from Longhorns’ point guard Max Abmas and ran with Johnson in transition.
“I see him out the corner of my eye and I’m like, ‘I could throw him the ball anywhere and he’s gonna catch it,'” Diarra said.
“We have that connection,” Johnson said before Karaban chimed in – “Roommates!”
That dunk put UConn ahead by 14 around the nine-minute mark, but the Longhorns – thanks to 21 points from Dillon Mitchell and 50% shooting in the second half – cut UConn’s lead, once as many as 16, down to just four with about five minutes left.
Karaban scored six straight points for the Huskies to hold on, including the dagger. The redshirt sophomore had 12 points in the second half and Spencer made all four of his foul shots to finish it out.
“Me and (assistant coach Luke Murray) try to take a lot of credit for the offense, but we didn’t get good on offense until Alex got here,” Hurley said. “When you have a four-man that can process the game the way he does and keep your group organized, and then also have the clutch gene – I mean, this guy has a knack for making big shots to end halves, to close out games, big free throws. He’s a special player.”
Newton was named MVP of the in-season tournament after starring with a 23-point double-double in Sunday’s win over Indiana. He had eight points on Monday with four rebounds and eight assists. Spencer followed up Sunday’s 18-point performance with 16, plus five rebounds and five assists.
The UConn men are now 71-60 all-time at MSG and 8-6 under Hurley.
“We’ve got great potential to be much better than we are right now,” Hurley said. “We’ve got a lot of new pieces, Steph’s a huge piece that’s not in the mix, he brings a dimension that we don’t have right now… But even players like Alex and Donovan – Jordan Hawkins, (at the) beginning of his sophomore year, was a much different player than he was at the end of his sophomore year. This team will continue to get better.”