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Huskies hold on to beat USC at Mohegan Sun

Mohegan — Bubbleville will be a happier place for UConn for a day or so.

Even being mainly restricted to their hotel rooms during free time won't seem that bad to the Huskies.

A hard-fought 61-58 win over USC in the Legends Classic on Thursday brightened UConn's mood and lifted its spirits.

The Huskies played with the relentless competitiveness and toughness that Hurley demands from his teams, helping them overcome some offensive struggles.

You almost could see Hurley smiling through his face mask as he walked off the Mohegan Sun Arena court.

"This was critical for us to get a quality non-conference win on a neutral site versus a team that seems to be a top 50 team, or a team that projects to be a potential NCAA team," Hurley said. "And the way we did it I thought was important.

"... We've won eight in a row (dating back to last season). When you start winning a lot, you start finding different ways to win."

UConn (3-0) seized the lead with about seven minutes left in the first half and maintained an advantage from there, leading by 13 in the second half and then holding off the Trojans (3-1), who climbed as close as three.

For the third straight game, sophomore James Bouknight led the team in scoring, finishing with 18 points and seven rebounds. In his first start, transfer Tyrese Martin had 11 points and seven rebounds while senior Isaiah Whaley added 10 points, five rebounds and five blocks as well as some inspired play during crucial late stages.

In a surprise development, senior Josh Carlton contributed nine points and a team-best 11 rebounds after playing only three minutes in the first two games. He appeared to have lost his spot in the rotation to freshman Adama Sanogo, who earned his first start on Thursday but was limited by foul trouble and his inexperience.

"Coming out of that Hartford game, we sent a message to Josh...," Hurley said. "We got Josh ready to go and he kept himself ready and he kept a great attitude. He knew he was going to get a chance to play and he took advantage of it."

The outcome was in doubt until the final seconds.

With a chance to add to a three-point lead, UConn committed a shot clock violation with 34 seconds left. Prior to that, Carlton grabbed an offensive rebound to extend the possession and burn more time off the clock.

Coming out of a timeout, USC misfired on three shots before the buzzer sounded.

Both teams struggled down the stretch on offense. UConn shot 34.5 percent from the field overall and USC 35.8 percent. The Huskies and Trojans each made just one field goal in an ugly final eight minutes.

The Huskies extended some ugly offensive possessions by grabbing 15 offensive rebounds, finishing with 13 second chance points.

"We're a serious work in progress offensively," Hurley said. "Seeing a zone of that length caused us a lot of problems. ... Success for us this time of year until we're more comfortable offensively, you've got to win with your defense and win with your toughness and your grit and your togetherness.

"To go plus 11 on the backboard versus a team with that type of size across the board just showed how tough we were."

UConn did a respectable job against USC's talented frontcourt. Freshman Evan Mobley was a pest with 17 points and seven rebounds. No other USC player scored in double figures. The Trojans wore down without starting guard Ethan Anderson who sat out with a back problem.

"We played a good basketball team," USC coach Andy Enfield said. "It was a tough physical game on both sides. We competed. We shot 3 for 19 (from three), so that was really the difference in the game."

Holding a 39-34 lead at intermission, UConn roared out to a 13-point advantage. Martin scored six straight points and Whaley dunked home a rebound for a 53-40 edge with 14:26 left. But the Huskies scored just eight points the rest of the way.

USC kept threatening to overtake UConn, closing to within 58-55 with 5:15 left.

Bouknight scored on a tough drive on the baseline while being fouled and completed the 3-point play to push the gap to 61-55. It was the team's only field goal in the last 8:27.

Mobley scored off a rebound and brother Isaiah Mobley hit one of the free throws to narrow the deficit to 61-58.

Three missed USC shots later, UConn celebrated a big win.

It was the first of two big non-conference games in Bubbleville for UConn, which plays North Carolina State (3-0) at noon on Saturday. The Wolfpack dismantled UMass Lowell, 90-59, on Thursday at the Mohegan Sun Arena.

Hurley challenged his players earlier this week in practice after sub-par performances in wins over Central Connecticut State University and Hartford last week. He put them through what he called a "cauldron of intensity."

The Huskies responded with a better and more intense effort.

"This week we did a great job with our preparation in practice," Bouknight said. "Practice is always going to be tough. Our coach makes sure practices are like chaos so when the game comes we'll be able to handle whatever comes to us."

"I didn't feel that it was much of a difference. This week was a tough week but it paid off."

g.keefe@theday.com

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