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UConn defense smothers Seton Hall in quarterfinals

Dan Hurley’s teams always bring defensive pressure. As an intense coach, his players reflect that personality on the pitch, manifesting in solid play on the defensive side.

“You can’t get away from our defensive identity. That’s who we are as a team, that’s who we are as a group,” said RJ Cole after the game. “Keep insisting on that every day, we have to keep doing that.”

Heading into the game, UConn was 37th in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, giving up 95.2 points per 100 possessions. That includes an effective field goal percentage of 45.6 percent, good for the nation’s No. 22, and 42.8 percent on 2 points, which is the nation’s No. 6.

In the Huskies’ first meeting with Seton Hall at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, UConn put on arguably their worst defensive performance of the season, allowing Seton Hall to score 1.22 points per possession and shoot 54.8 % on 2 points, leading to a 90-87 overtime loss for the Huskies.

UConn were better when they hosted Seton Hall at the Gampel Pavilion in February, giving up 1.03 points per possession and allowing a 44.7 field goal percentage from inside the arc. The stingier defense helped the Huskies to a 70-65 win in the rematch.

However, Thursday night was UConn’s signature performance on the defensive end. In terms of pure runs, Seton Hall only batted 50 in the last minute, while the Huskies gave up just 0.87 points per possession and allowed 35.1 percent on 2 runs. Myles Cale and Kadary Richmond totaled 31 of the Pirates’ 52 points.

Jared Rhoden, one of the Pirates’ top offensive contributors, with a 24.9% burn rate this season, was limited to seven points on 2-of-13 shooting in 33 minutes, largely due to Tyrese’s efforts Martin.

“[Rhoden] was a big factor for us for their attack, to make sure we stopped it. Coming into this game, it was something that I took personally tonight and went out there and did it,” Martin said.

The defense was even better in the first half, as Seton Hall had 18 points on 25% shooting, and continued until the pace got a bit more frantic late in the second half as the Pirates were trying to come back from a double-digit deficit, leading to nearly half their points in the final 10 minutes.

The Huskies had seven blocks, led by four from Isaiah Whaley, and five steals, including two each from Tyrese Martin and Andre Jackson.

“I think we made everything very difficult for them. At the rim, we made everything difficult for them,” said head coach Dan Hurley.

It’s been UConn’s MO all season. While the team’s offense is ranked higher than defense in terms of KenPom-adjusted efficiency, the team thrives on their defensive performance and has lost twice, in their road games against Villanova and Seton Hall, when the games entered the arena, as both teams shot at it. 47% of the land.

The Huskies are now 9-1 when their opponents’ field goal percentage is 36% or less, with the only loss to Michigan State, without Whaley. This trend extends to 15-4 when below 40%. In these plays, the team can use missed shots, rebounds, and transition outs for easy buckets.

As the UConn defense goes, the team goes. This showed on Thursday and will be a trend to watch throughout the Big East tournament and beyond.