Hurley fuels UConn men's basketball drive to win at home

Published on Monday, 1 March 2021 19:07
Written by NEILL OSTROUT

JOURNAL INQUIRER

STORRS - It wasn’t Joe Namath in 1969. It was Mark Messier in 1994.

Dan Hurley wasn’t guaranteeing the Jets would win a Super Bowl, or that the Rangers would win a Stanley Cup.

He claims it wasn’t a guarantee at all. But the players on the UConn men’s basketball team certainly thought it was.

After the Huskies beat Providence here Feb. 16, Hurley said his team wasn’t going to lose in Gampel Pavilion for the rest of the season. They had lost enough already in the building, the coach said.

Yes, his team had just two home games remaining and they would be heavy favorites in both, but Hurley still was making quite a pledge.

After his team took care of Marquette Saturday with an 80-62 waltz, Hurley wasn’t gloating about starting his guarantee 1-for-1, with Saturday’s home finale against Georgetown looming. Actually, he was backtracking just a bit.

“That wasn’t a public statement or a guarantee. That was something for the players to rally around,” Hurley said with a smile. “Without the crowd, you have to find some type of mantra or mission to get yourself on.”

Make no mistake, however, his players didn’t see the nuanced difference. They thought it was guarantee.

“When he shared that, he meant it. We’re not losing any more in Gampel,” guard James Bouknight said after scoring a game-high 24 points Saturday. “When we came into this game, we knew we definitely couldn’t lose this game here.”

That’s quite a bit of pressure to put on a team, it would seem. In reality, Bouknight says, it’s not that big a deal to him.

“I feel more pressure when I go into a coach Hurley practice than when I go into a game. That’s the honest truth,” Bouknight said.

UConn has a rather colorful history of guarantees.

Former UConn coach Kevin Ollie, after the Huskies played their final home game in the 2014 regular season by beating Rutgers to head into their final regular season game at Louisville with a solid, though not overwhelmingly impressive 24-6 record, told the crowd after the game that he and his team would see them again in the building in four weeks when they would all celebrate a national championship.

And UConn, despite getting absolutely demolished in that Louisville game and then losing to the Cardinals again in the American Conference Tournament final, did in fact get blazingly hot in the NCAA Tournament and win the program’s fourth national title.

Some of the other guarantees in UConn basketball history have been a bit dubious, such as the time colorful former UConn guard Rashad Anderson guaranteed the Huskies would win a key late-season showdown with Villanova in 2006.

He was correct, though he later said “Hey, I’m 5-2 in guarantee games.”

We’re not sure Anderson understood the meaning of the word, but we digress.

Hurley wasn’t being quite as outrageous or as brash with his predictions. He just wanted to give his team a confidence boost when it needed something, perhaps other than Bouknight’s return from a six-week injury absence, to give it a little fuel for the stretch run.

It’s worked so far.

UConn has won four of its last five games and at 12-6 overall and 9-6 in Big East play, is seemingly in good shape for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid.

Hurley was asked about his team’s position on the bubble and the coach bristled slightly.

“Are you sure we’re on the bubble?” said Hurley, whose team’s road finale is Wednesday at Seton Hall.

Told that ESPN’s expert, Joe Lunardi, had the Huskies one of the last four teams in prior to Saturday’s game, Hurley joked that he relied on other experts to judge his team’s chances.

“I look for people that have us in a better position. It’s good for my mental health. So I’m going to go with Jerry Palm,” Hurley said of the CBS Sports’ expert.

Hurley isn’t going so far as to guarantee UConn will end its five-year NCAA Tournament absence, but he knows the Huskies are much more dangerous to opponents these days.

Bouknight and Cole combined for 45 points on Saturday, carrying the Huskies to an easy victory even as their post players continued to pile up fouls.

“When your backcourt gives you that, and you guard, you’re hard to beat,” Hurley said. “Offensively we were just able to keep scoring. R.J. and James kept making plays. We were leaking defensively and they were living at the foul line.”

Cole hasn’t always had the easiest of seasons. And although Hurley stopped short of guaranteeing he is going to follow in the footsteps of Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker and the like, Cole’s coach believes he’s responded with flying colors after going over a few speed bumps.

“(He’s) just fighting back. This is like being the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Hurley said. “When you’re the point guard at UConn, you’ve got tremendous responsibility. Look at the history here of the incredible point guards that have led this program.”



Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Monday, 1 March 2021 19:07. Updated: Monday, 1 March 2021 19:10.