PARADISE ISLAND, BAHAMAS — The UConn men’s basketball team knew its Battle 4 Atlantis tournament opener Wednesday against No. 22 Auburn would be the toughest test yet.
Little did they know that test would look like a double-overtime instant classic in which the No. 19 Huskies had to fight through three of their starters fouling out, squandering a 15-point lead and hanging on in OT to come away with the 115-109 victory for one of the program’s biggest wins under coach Dan Hurley.
It was UConn’s first ranked win since March 5, 2020 versus Houston. Hurley is now 4-11 against ranked teams as head coach at UConn.
The Huskies (5-0) meet Michigan State on Thursday at noon in their second game of the tournament.
“The program’s been through a lot. We’ve had to climb these last couple years. We were horrible a couple years ago, and we’re finally climbing this mountain and getting good again and starting to resemble UConn again,” Hurley said.
“And we’re not going to let you knock us off that easily when we’re trying so hard to get this thing back to where UConn should be. So you’ve got to try to kill us to beat us.”
Sophomore forward Adama Sanogo led the Huskies with a career-high 30 points, his third game of the season with at least 20. Graduate students R.J. Cole and Tyler Polley added 24 apiece, Polley on 6-of-9 shooting from 3 and the clutch trey at the end of regulation to send it to overtime. Freshman Jordan Hawkins was also a bright spot with a career-high 16 points (5-of-7 shooting, 3-of-4 shooting on 3s).
The Huskies managed to win despite losing Tyrese Martin, Andre Jackson and Isaiah Whaley at the end of regulation, the first overtime and the second overtime, respectively, after fouling out.
For Auburn (3-1), K.D. Johnson put up 27, followed by 22 for Jabari Smith and 19 for Wendell Green Jr.
“That was a special game, that was a special nonconference game,” Hurley said. “The amount of shotmaking and playmaking and athleticism and skill and will, obviously two teams that are going to have the potential to have a great, great year and can see each other in the NCAA Tournament.”
UConn found early success with Sanogo, who scored its first 10 points. But the team otherwise looked discombobulated, coughing up the ball way too much and looking to score through Sanogo. While the defense held stout, the Huskies suddenly faced an 11-point deficit when Green caught fire with three straight 3s.
Following a pivotal timeout at the 11:25 mark, UConn used a 35-13 run to close the half with a 45-34 edge. They rattled off 13 unanswered points, including eight from Polley off the bench, and a layup from Hawkins gave the Huskies their first lead since 6-4.
Auburn briefly retook the lead before the Huskies started raining 3s of their own with one from Martin and a 3 from Hawkins before the close of the half. The team as a whole went 8-12 from the perimeter with four different players hitting at least one 3, while also buckling down on defense.
UConn’s strong finish to the half carried over after the break, with the Huskies extended their lead to 15 off a dunk from Martin. But Auburn used a doubling down of defensive pressure to narrow the gap, and UConn’s offense stalled, going over five minutes without a field goal towards the end of the half. Auburn took advantage to make it a six-point game off Walker Kessler’s and-one, and while Cole briefly granted the Huskies a nine-point edge with a 3, the Tigers responded with a 13-2 run, capped by a Smith 3, to retake the lead for the first time since it was 24-23.
Martin kept UConn in the game with two baskets of his own, getting his team within one with 50.8 to play. But he fouled Johnson on the next play, sending him to the bench with five and allowing Johnson to make it a two-point game once more.
Coming out of a timeout with 29 seconds on the clock, Cole drew a foul to get to the line, but went 1-2. Whaley secured the offensive rebound and Polley hit a 3 off it to propel UConn ahead by two with 14 seconds remaining, but Johnson ensured there would be overtime with a layup with four seconds to go and the Huskies’ inability to hit on their last-ditch effort.
“We just tried to stay connected, tried to stay calm,” Polley said. “Mainly just tried to stay together out there. We knew they weren’t going to give up and we knew they were going to keep fighting. We just had to weather the storm and keep pushing and trying to get the win.”
The teams traded leads in the first overtime, with Sanogo’s dunk putting UConn up by two with just over two minutes to play. Johnson cut it to one once more, and after Cole’s second-chance 3-pointer at 22 seconds, it seemed like that could be the game-winner. But Auburn converted a pair from the line and then Hawkins had a freshman moment at the wrong time, turning the ball over and allowing that Tigers to score on the other end to send the game into double overtime.
“I definitely felt numerous times we could have had the game won,” Cole said. “We continued to just talk to each other and keep pushing, knowing that it’s not going to be easy, and we’re going to have to fight for this one to get the win. “
Polley and Sanogo carried the team down the stretch in the second OT, scoring the squad’s first 14 points. Polley hit a pair of 3s and two free throws and Sanogo finally found his touch under the rim after some struggles at the end of regulation and the first overtime to catapult the Huskies ahead by nine.
“He’s a special player and his work ethic is becoming legendary in our program with his daily routine and everything he puts into this thing,” Hurley said. “He comes from a great background. His pedigree is amazing, his family and so just knew he had the character to handle the storms that arise during the game.”
Whaley fouled out with 22.9 seconds left, fouling Smith on a 3-point attempt. Smith converted all three of his attempts to pull Auburn within four, but Gaffney’s defensive rebound off an Auburn miss, and the ensuing pair of free throws, allowed UConn to finally come away with the win.
“Just a multitude of things that went on that were mind-boggling, mind-numbing,” Hurley said about the team’s execution from the end of regulation through the second overtime. “The good thing is as a staff, we won’t even have to watch this game today. We’ll watch when we get home because now we get to focus on Michigan State. I don’t want to relive that today.”
Whaley had a scare at the end of the game when he appeared to pass out at the UConn bench. The paramedics were called over but he got up under his own power quickly and proceeded with the team through the high-five line.
“He had a fainting episode,” Hurley said. “I think he just stood up too quick. I mean, the dude did play 43 minutes of incredible defense versus a top-five pick [Smith]. So I just think he got up too quick. I don’t even think it’s like an IV bag, dehydration thing. I just think he stood up too quick.”