Cam Spencer, Stephon Castle shine in UConn’s 77-64 win over St. John’s

NEW YORK — The excitement and anticipation that coursed through a sold-out crowd at Madison Square Garden bubbled over long before the national anthem was finished. Cries of “Go Johnnies!” and “F— UConn!” reverberated from one corner of the famous arena to another as nearly 20,000 fans dreaming of an upset of the No. 1 team in the country allowed their emotions to overflow. This was old-school Big East basketball revitalized and reborn thanks to the arrival of St. John’s coach Rick Pitino, who entered the gym while “Empire State of Mind” by Jay-Z echoed around the place. 

But the frenetic energy and timely perimeter shooting that delivered St. John’s a one-point halftime lead was quickly arrested and subdued by an offensive explosion from Connecticut: a virtuoso 41-point second half in which the Huskies shot 47.8% from the floor and 16-for-18 from the free-throw line. And as heady guard Cam Spencer (23 points) made shot after shot down the stretch, sucking the life from Pitino and his hard-charging Red Storm, the chants that emanated from fans were far different: “Let’s go Huskies! Let’s go Huskies!”

A close game devolved into a comfortable 77-64 victory for Connecticut, marking the 10th straight win for the Huskies to remain atop the Big East and the national rankings. 

Here are three quick takeaways from New York: 

Testing UConn’s depth

Nearly two hours before Madison Square Garden roared into a frenzy, forward Alex Karaban was one of the first Connecticut players on the court for early warmups. He moved from end to end, spot to spot, and never appeared worse for wear despite spraining his ankle in a win over Providence on Wednesday night. A bit of ankle tape protruding from his right sock was the only indication that anything might be amiss. 

But roughly 30 minutes prior to tipoff, UConn announced that Karaban wouldn’t be playing. When he returned to the court for the team’s final preparations, Karaban had swapped his workout gear for a short-sleeved polo and khakis. If the Huskies wanted to emerge from one of the most raucous environments of the season unscathed, they’d have to do so without arguably their best player. 

Losing Karaban, who averages 14.5 points per game and ranks second on the team with 46 made 3-pointers, shortened Connecticut’s front-court rotation from three primary contributors to two, and prompted Dan Hurley to lean more heavily on four-guard lineups. He inserted veteran guard Hassan Diarra (four points, five rebounds) into the starting five and handed more minutes to true freshmen Solomon Ball and Jaylin Stewart. 

With none of those players offsetting Karaban’s scoring punch, five-star freshman Stephon Castle stepped into a more prominent offensive role for the second consecutive game. Castle connected on each of his attempts from beyond the arc and fearlessly attacked the rim, both in transition and on drives to the rim. He finished with 21 points, three days after pouring in a then-career-high 20 against the Friars. Castle’s continued emergence bodes well for a Connecticut offense that already features four players who entered Saturday’s game averaging at least 12.8 points per game. 

‘We’re the No. 1 team’ – UConn’s Stephon Castle on the win over St. John’s and the Huskies’ tenacity

'We're the No. 1 team' – UConn's Stephon Castle on the win over St. John's and the Huskies' tenacity

Searching for Plan B

Hulking St. John’s center Joel Soriano clenched his fists, flexed his muscles and roared after powering his way through a Connecticut defender for a layup, plus the foul, with 11:43 remaining in the second half, pulling the Red Storm within five points, 53-48. 

It was the kind of play that typified much of St. John’s success the last few years, ever since Soriano transferred across the city from Fordham, where he nearly averaged a double-double as a true sophomore in 2020-21. He’s become just the 19th player in Red Storm history to eclipse 1,000 points, doing so in only three seasons, and he’s recorded 36 double-doubles in 54 appearances. Soriano entered the weekend averaging 16.6 points and 10 rebounds per game.

But his traditional three-point play near the midway point of Saturday’s second half produced just his fourth, fifth and sixth points of what he’ll likely remember as a frustrating afternoon. Rather than allowing big men Donovan Clingan and Samson Johnson to defend Soriano one-on-one — a scenario that might have favored the brutish, 255-pound senior — Connecticut’s guards repeatedly hurled themselves into the paint for arm-flailing double teams that simultaneously restricted scoring chances and obscured passing lanes. Soriano’s diminutive total of two assists was just as devastating as his limited offensive production (six points on 2-for-6 shooting). 

And therein lies the problem for a transfer-heavy St. John’s team that is still coalescing, still searching for consistent scoring options outside of Soriano. Guard Daniss Jenkins poured in 11 points in the opening few minutes of the first half, including a trio of 3-pointers that ignited an expectant crowd, but he managed just eight points the rest of the way. Fellow guard RJ Luis Jr. (11 points) was the only other Red Storm player to eclipse 10 points.  

Soriano’s frustration boiled over at the under-8 media timeout when he needed to be restrained by teammates after barking at Castle on his way to the St. John’s bench. It was just the second time this season he finished with fewer than 10 points. 

St. John’s Joel Soriano flies in for the putback slam against UConn

St. John's Joel Soriano flies in for the putback slam against UConn

Emerging unscathed

When Connecticut opened Big East play with a blowout road loss to Seton Hall on Dec. 20, there were myriad questions for the Huskies to answer: How would they respond to losing Clingan, their starting center, to a foot injury that would sideline him for a month? How would a team that relies on multiple freshmen for significant minutes handle the physicality of life in the Big East? How would Tristen Newton fare in conference play after beginning the season as one of the hottest guards in the country?

With so much uncertainty surrounding Hurley and his team, it seemed unlikely the Huskies would be where they are right now: riding a 10-game winning streak into the softer underbelly of their Big East schedule, which features upcoming dates with Butler, Georgetown and DePaul before a marquee showdown with No. 9 Marquette on Feb. 17. And even that game will be played at home, at the XL Center in Hartford, where Connecticut is undefeated this season. They’ve won by an average of 13.8 points during their current run.

What it means is that a UConn team that improved to 20-2 overall and 10-1 in Big East play by dispatching the Red Storm on Saturday is well-positioned to maintain its place atop the AP poll for at least another two weeks. Connecticut will be heavily favored in each of its next three games and should enter the battle against Marquette within striking distance of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The analytics website projects Hurley’s team to win all nine of its remaining games entering postseason play. 

Michael Cohen covers college football and basketball for FOX Sports with an emphasis on the Big Ten. Follow him on Twitter at @Michael_Cohen13.

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