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UConn men come alive in second half, race past Xavier for 87-60 win in Big East Tournament quarterfinal

NEW YORK – The UConn men’s basketball team loosened up after it went into the Madison Square Garden locker room at halftime with a slim, one-point lead over Xavier in Thursday’s Big East Tournament quarterfinal.

Shooting just 40.6% from the field and leading for only three and a half minutes, coach Dan Hurley urged for the intensity level to rise and the top-seeded Huskies obliged, sprinting away for an 87-60 win.

UConn held the Musketeers to just 28.1% shooting from the field in the second half and was able to get into a flow on offense, where the team shot 78.6% after the break – including 15-straight makes to end the game.

“Off stops is their time to play. It’s an opportunity to be aggressive and just look to play in the ball-screen game or just go make plays for each other, get lost in offense,” Hurley said of his team, which had 29 assists on 34 made field goals. “When we’re getting the stops like that and we’re getting transition opportunities and with the way we execute offense in the half court… Yeah, we’re tough to guard when we get rolling.”

UConn had six players finish in double-figure scoring, with Donovan Clingan and Tristen Newton each leading the way with 13. Alex Karaban, Cam Spencer and Samson Johnson each scored 12 and Stephon Castle added 10.

UConn’s final field goal percentage (58.3%) and its 29 assists are each new program records in Big East Tournament games.

“I just think we don’t care who scores,” said Castle, the Big East Freshman of the Year who also contributed eight rebounds, five assists and a pair of blocks. “We’re just trying to find the best shot for each possession, so if that means moving the ball around 10 times or somebody going to go make a shot for themselves, then that’s what it’s gonna be.”

“I can tell you they should have had 34 (assists),” Hurley said, “because that stretch of three or four minutes when we were – our lobs were a little bit off and we bricked some 3s and we had some sleepy (stuff) going on out there that I didn’t like. It’s a testament to the group. There’s not many teams in the country with this level of talent and NBA players, I mean a starting five of all guys that are NBA players, that are willing for it to be other people’s nights on a given night.”

The Huskies missed their first four shots of the afternoon and dug themselves into a 10-0 hole to start the game, but climbed out with a 13-0 run in response. It was a similar start to their final regular-season game at Providence, when the Friars led 15-2 before UConn stormed back to put the game away.

“That’s awful to continue to start off games like that,” Karaban put it bluntly. “But just knowing that we’re able to stay together and fight through adversity, we know teams are going to go on their runs and then we’re gonna have our runs too later in the game.”

UConn missed nine consecutive shots after taking a one-point lead around the 10-minute mark, but Newton found Johnson for an alley-oop dunk that gave him eight points in the first half. Spencer, who had a team-high 10 points at halftime, scored seven of UConn’s last nine points to maintain a slim lead as Dayvion McKnight scored Xavier’s last six points in the half.

McKnight’s buzzer-beating midrange shot made it just a 34-33 UConn advantage at the break.

The Huskies came out of the locker room with a different energy. Karaban opened the second half with a layup, which Clingan followed with a block – on fellow Connecticut native Desmond Claude, from New Haven – that led to a Newton layup in transition.

Newton, a unanimous first-team All-Big East selection and a Sporting News All-American, showed off some rare bounce around the 15-minute mark as he followed a missed 3-pointer from Spencer and rose up to finish a putback dunk.

“He’s also got a chip on his shoulder,” Karaban said, referencing the league’s player of the year award that the team believes Newton should’ve won. “He knows his value and he knows what he brings. Him having a putback dunk definitely opened up my eyes even though I’ve played with him for the past two years.

Xavier made just three of its first 18 shots to start the second half and finished the game just 34.4% from the field and 5-for-21 (23.8%) from 3.

UConn started to run away as Clingan, who had just two points in a rough first half, scored 11-straight points for the Huskies over a three-minute span as the lead grew to 17 at the 5:38 mark. A Castle layup made it 26 with just over three minutes to go and Hurley was able to empty the bench.

Apostolous Roumoglou promptly hit a 3-pointer, continuing the string of made shots, Solo Ball scored twice and Jayden Ross finished it off with a layup.

UConn plays No. 5 St. John’s in the 5:30 p.m. semifinal on Friday.