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UConn men looking to maintain their edge in facing desperate St. John's at MSG

Feb. 2—Top-ranked UConn will walk into a lion's den on Saturday afternoon at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York.

It will take a maximum effort and first-rate performance for the Huskies to survive.

Losers of four of its last five, St. John's (13-8, 5-5) is a desperate team that needs a marquee win to bolster its resume.

The Huskies (19-2, 9-1) have tamed tough opponents before but know they'll have to play with the same razor-sharp competitive edge that's carried them to nine straight wins and first place in the Big East Conference. Game time is at noon.

"When it's going really well for you, you're battling against the human nature thing," UConn coach Dan Hurley said Friday. "You can't lose the urgency edge, the desperation, the life or death pursuit of rebounds and hustle plays.

"We've won nine in a row and risen to No. 1 the year after winning a national championship. They've split their last 10. We can't let them have that edge. They're too talented of a team, they're too physical, they're too well-coached. That edge is what has led to a lot of our success. ... We're going to have to go to hell and back to win the game, especially with a compromised Alex."

Alex is starting forward Alex Karaban, whose playing status for Saturday is a game-time decision. Karaban is recovering from a sprained ankle suffered in the first half of Wednesday's win over Providence. He ended up playing 34 minutes but was limited.

"He's recovered, especially today, pretty well," Hurley said. "But it was a good sprain. He's a total warrior to be able to come back and finish that game. If he desperately wants to go based on how he feels tomorrow, we'll make the decision probably at the arena, pregame."

UConn already has played St. John's this season without one of its starters. A foot injury kept sophomore center Donovan Clingan sidelined during the first meeting on Dec. 23 in Hartford. Junior Samson Johnson filled in and delivered a career-high 16 points in a 69-65 victory. The Huskies trailed by two with 4 minutes, 15 seconds left before closing the game with an 8-2 run.

Clingan is healthy now and due for a bounce-back game after a subpar, foul-plagued game versus Providence. He'll battle Joel Soriano, a fellow top 10 candidate for the 2024 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award annually given to the top center in the country, on Saturday.

Hurley is looking for Clingan to have a productive, impactful game on both ends of the court as well as playing with an attitude.

"He's got to play with some nastiness, some rage versus some guys that play a really nasty physical style of center in their frontcourt," Hurley said.

St. John's has played better than its record indicates. Four of its five Big East losses came by four points or fewer.

UConn barely survived against Providence, overcoming a sluggish start to earn a hard-fought win. Freshman Stephon Castle rescued the Huskies with his best game of his young career.

A repeat effort may result in a different outcome on Saturday.

"We better be prepared," Hurley said. "It's a super veteran team, one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. They're very, very physical. That was hopefully a wakeup call the other day because we were not ready to go."

Like any UConn game at Madison Square Garden, the Huskies will have a strong contingent of fans on hand to support the team. Husky fans refer to MSG as "Storrs South."

Given their experience, the Huskies are unlikely to be rattled for the big game atmosphere.

"A couple of years now, we've been playing in some really big games," Hurley said. "We're very comfortable in them. Obviously, it's a Big East game, an NCAA-level St. John's team at MSG, with what should be a great atmosphere. We're excited about the game."

Saturday's game has a little added spice to it due to comments made by Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino, who's in his first season rebuilding the Red Storm program.

Pitino talked about playing next season's home game against UConn at Carnesecca Arena instead of MSG in order to create a bigger home-court advantage. But Pitino reportedly said Friday that's off now.

Hurley had no interest in firing back at Pitino on Friday.

"I'm not going to help anybody out with any clicks," Hurley said.

g.keefe@theday.com

No. 1 UCONN at ST. JOHN'S

Location: Madison Square Garden, New York

Tip time: Noon (Fox)

Records: UConn 19-2, 9-1; St. John's 13-8, 5-5

Last game: UConn beat Providence, 74-65, Wednesday; St. John's lost at Xavier, 88-77, Wednesday

Series: UConn trails, 37-32, winning last meeting, 69-65, Dec. 23 in Hartford

Probable starters: UConn, 6-5 graduate guard Tristen Newton (15.8 pts, 6.6 rebs, 5.7 assists), 6-4 graduate guard Cam Spencer (14.9 pts, 4.5 rebs), 6-6 fr. guard Stephon Castle (10.3 pts, 4.7 rebs), 6-8 r-so. forward Alex Karaban (14.5 pts, 5.8 rebs), 7-2 so. center Donovan Clingan (12.8 pts, 6.1 rebs, 1.9 blks)

St. John's, 6-4 grad guard Daniss Jenkins (13.6 pts, 3.9 rebs), 6-4 fr. guard Simeon Wilcher (2.1 pts), 6-6 jr. forward Glenn Taylor, Jr. (4.9 pts, 2.3 rebs), 6-6 grad forward Chris Ledlum (9.4 pts, 7.6 rebs), 6-11 grad center Joel Soriano (16.6 pts, 10 rebs)

Noteworthy: UConn won 34 of its last 38 games dating back to last season. Huskies off to best start since opening 24-1 in 2010-11. ... St. John's has dropped four of five. ... Samson Johnson (16 pts), Newton (15) and Spencer (15) led the Huskies in the first meeting. St. John's shot just 38.5%, Soriano had 14 pts, 11 rebs. ... Top reserve: 6-3 sr. guard Jordan Dingle (10.7 pts). ... Former UConn guard Nahiem Alleyne (6.4 pts, 1.9 rebs) has appeared in 20 games for Red Storm. ... Hot: Castle made 3 of his last 5 3-point attempts after going 5 for 24 to start the season. Cold: Spencer 8 for 27 from the field in the last three games. ... UConn is 3-0 at MSG this season, with wins over Texas, Indiana and North Carolina. .... In the last two games, UConn went from sinking a program-record tying 17 threes vs. Xavier to a season-low tying four vs. PC. ... Karaban a top 10 candidate for 2024 Karl Malone Award for nation's best power forward. ... As of Friday, UConn was 4th in the NCAA NET rankings. ... Up next: UConn hosts Butler at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday in Hartford.

—Gavin Keefe