CHICAGO (AP) — UConn returned to the Top 25 for the first time in more than four years, then immediately got all it could handle from a struggling DePaul squad.
The close score aside, the Huskies made a big statement Monday about the direction of the program.
Tyrese Martin scored 18 points and 25th-ranked Connecticut beat DePaul 60-53 without leading scorer James Bouknight for its fourth straight victory.
UConn (7-1, 4-1 Big East) endured three straight losing seasons before winning 19 games in 2019-20. In their third season since Danny Hurley replaced former UConn guard Kevin Ollie as coach, the Huskies are back in familiar territory.
They cracked the Top 25 earlier Monday for the first time since they were ranked 18th in the 2016-17 preseason poll, then squeezed past the Blue Demons to maintain momentum.
“We’re here now, and we’re gonna keep going,” R.J. Cole said. “That’s for years to come. As long as we keep working hard and doing the things that Coach wants us to do — and that starts with defense and toughness. And that’s how we play.”
Connecticut scored the final eight points and improved to 12-1 against the Blue Demons (1-4, 0-4) despite some shaky free throw shooting down the stretch.
Cole and Tyler Polley each had 12 points for the Huskies. Cole hit a 3-pointer to start the game-ending run, and UConn came out on top despite shooting 5 of 18 from beyond the arc. Bouknight missed his second consecutive game with an elbow injury.
DePaul lost its fourth straight since beating Western Illinois late last month in an opener delayed because of COVID-19 issues. Darious Hall was the only player in double digits with 10 points, and the Blue Demons committed 24 turnovers.
“I thought for most — if not all — 40 minutes, our competition level was where it needed to be against a really good team that is as solid as any team in this league, whether they have Bouknight or not,” coach Dave Leitao said.
UConn, which routed DePaul by 21 last month, trailed by four before Cole nailed a 3 and Martin made a layup to put the Huskies on top 52-51 with just under five minutes remaining.
After DePaul’s Nick Ongenda dunked, UConn’s Brendan Adams tied it by hitting 1 of 2 from the foul line. Adams then got blocked from behind on a fast break by Javon Freeman-Liberty before Martin and Polley each hit 1 of 2 at the line to put the Huskies on top 55-53.
Martin scored on a putback and drove for a layup to make it a six-point game with just over a minute remaining. Cole went 1 for 2 at the line with 26 seconds left to finish the scoring.
“The guys showed real grit and heart,” Hurley said. “We didn’t play a clean game after a really good start. Credit DePaul; those guys played really, really hard. Really athletic team with a couple excellent frontcourt players, really talented perimeter people.”
UConn, playing its third game in seven days, looked as though it might roll to an easy win when it jumped out to a 17-6 lead. But the Blue Demons got right back into the game.
Hall drained a 3 to cut it to 31-30 with 45 seconds left in the first half. Martin missed a 3 and a layup on the final possession before hitting two free throws with less than a second remaining.
UConn: Hurley said his team “didn’t have the same pop” after playing three straight in the Midwest, with games at Marquette and Butler last week. Now, the Huskies head home and get some time to catch their breath, with a week between games.
DePaul: The Blue Demons hung in until the closing minutes. But the result was a familiar one.
UConn: The Huskies host St. John’s next Monday. They were scheduled to play No. 3 Villanova on Friday, but that game got postponed because of COVID-19 issues within the Wildcats’ program.
DePaul: The Blue Demons will try to stop their skid when they visit Georgetown on Wednesday.
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