Photo: Stephen Dunn / Associated Press
STORRS – After UConn jumped out to a 23-point lead over the first 10 minutes of play Tuesday night, it appeared the only intrigue left over the final 30 minutes would be the countdown to Sidney Wilson's collegiate debut.
Alas, someone forgot to tell that to UMass Lowell, who decided to make things competitive, pulled to within 10 by halftime and refused to go away through the first 10 minutes of the latter half.
The Huskies ultimately pulled away for a 97-75 victory behind their typical well-balanced scoring attack. Christian Vital scored 17 of his 19 points in the first 10 1/2 minutes of play, Jalen Adams also netted 19, Josh Carlton had 15 points and eight rebounds and Alterique Gilbert also scored 15.
UConn improved to 6-1, its best seven-game start to a season since 2013. By the time they get to Arizona, however, the Huskies better improve their defense.
UConn allowed UMass Lowell (4-5) to shoot 49.1 percent for the game and 41.7 percent from 3-point range. The River Hawks outscored the Huskies 25-12 over the final 9 minutes of the opening half, then shot 55.6 percent in the second.
"I just thought it was a dreadful defensive performance," said coach Dan Hurley. "If we do not get better, at that end of the court – quickly – we're gonna be in deep trouble, beginning on Sunday."
UConn welcomes Arizona to the XL Center on Sunday at 1 p.m.
"Our focus these next couple of days is gonna be on the defensive end of the court," Hurley said. "Just understanding, to beat a team like Arizona, the way they play and how they've been run over the years, guys have to understand possession by possession, how tough and together and unselfish and committed to winning we'll have to be on Sunday. "
Carlton, for one, believes his team will be ready.
"I think we're gonna take advantage of these couple of days of preparation," the 6-foot-10 sophomore center said. "Just trying to string together a couple of good practices before we take on Arizona and have our focus going into the game."
As for Wilson, he made his long-awaited debut with 8:58 left to play and … well, his rust (nerves?) Showed a bit. Wilson botched an easy pass from Jalen Adams in his first minute of play, then grabbed an offensive rebound, only to be rejected by the rim on a dunk attempt, leading to a River Hawk runout.
Wilson, a 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman forward, did not play in the Huskies' first six games for an undisclosed violation of university rules that dated back to last season. I have sat out all of last season after transferring from St. John's just before the school year started.
Paced by Vital's 17 points, the Huskies raced out to a 32-9 lead. When Vital hit 3-pointer with 9:25 left in the half, he was already more than halfway to his career highs in scoring (30) and 3's (seven) for a game.
"I was just playing," Vital said. "My teammates were doing a great job of finding me, and I did my job of knocking the shots down. I appreciate my teammates finding me. "
But the Huskies got a little careless, or lax, or both, and the River Hawks outscored them 25-12 over the final nine minutes of the half. UConn did not hit a field goal over the final 3:56, and after turning the ball over just twice over the first 17 minutes, he had three turnovers in the final three.
Oh, and Adams had three fouls.
"Incredibly frustrating," said Hurley, "and had nothing to do with the foul trouble, it had to do with our defensive mindset. That game, at halftime, should never have been 10. It should have been 22 or 24. It's just bad habits, bad mindset. You can not learn to change that in seven or eight months. "
Adams kicked off the last half with a conventional 3-point play, kicking off a 9-2 start. But UMass Lowell was still within 14 midway through the middle, until 10-2 run – capped by Adams steal and dunk – gave UConn some breathing room.
That's when the Sidney Wilson Era was started … and Dan Hurley's worries about his team's defense certainly did not end.
"If we guard at that level, like it's a grassroots game – without insulting grassroots coaches, because grassroots teams play better defense than that – we're not an offensive juggernaut, so we'd better tighten that up, or we're gonna have major problems. Quickly. "
RIM RATTLINGS: Wilson wound up playing just under five minutes (which was about what Hurley had planned for him), collecting three rebounds, missing both his shots and turning the ball over once.
"It was Sid's first seconds in college basketball," said Vital. "Once he starts understanding, he gets his feel back for playing in games, and you'll see Sid you have not seen before. I promise you that. "
Added Hurley: "We had to move on without him with the team we had for the first seven games. Now, the onus is on Sid, day-to-day, to get himself on the court with his practice habits and his attention to detail of learning our system. "
A moment of silence was observed prior to the game in memory of Tony Hanson, UConn's No. 3 all-time leading scorer who died on Sunday morning at age 63.