NEW YORK — The outcome of Monday’s Empire Classic title game between No. 5 UConn and No. 15 Texas wasn’t in doubt when Cam Spencer stepped to the line with 41 seconds left and the Huskies leading by eight.
But the reigning national champions had their eyes on something bigger — and for that, Spencer’s free throws were imperative.
The Rutgers transfer hit both free throws, then hit two more 10 seconds later and UConn came out with an 81-71 win over the Longhorns.
It was UConn’s 22nd straight win over a nonconference opponent by a double-digit margin, dating back to the start of last season and including the Huskies’ dominant run through the NCAA tournament.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, North Carolina’s 23 straight double-digit wins over nonconference opponents from Nov. 2008 to Nov. 2009 is the longest such streak in the past 40 years.
UConn’s next two games are at home against Manhattan on Friday and New Hampshire next Monday. Win both, and the Huskies have the record.
When informed by ESPN after Monday’s game that his team was now two wins from the record, UConn coach Dan Hurley responding jokingly: “We play the day after Thanksgiving, so we’re canceling Thanksgiving. We’re not going to let these guys eat the turkey. Be all sluggish and s— the next day.”
UConn established itself as the best team in the country during the first half of last season, winning all 11 of its nonconference games by double-digits. After an up-and-down Big East campaign, the Huskies received a 4-seed in the NCAA tournament — and promptly won six games en route to the national championship by an average of 20.0 points, the fourth largest average margin since the tournament expanded in 1985. They were the fifth team since 1985 to win all six of its NCAA tournament games by double-digits.
“It’s been unbelievable, from last nonconference season, these guys have just been awesome,” Hurley said Monday. “We are unique with the way that we play. I think we’re unique with the way we play offense, just having the two high-level centers. I just think the program has got so much confidence. You win a national championship, you step onto the court with just a lot of belief that you’re supposed to win. And we’re pretty relentless. The coach is relentless, the players are relentless.
“We’re going to try to beat you by as many as we can beat you by.”
UConn’s streak was in danger late in Monday’s championship game against Texas, as the Longhorns cut what was once a 16-point lead down to four points in the second half. They were on a 10-0 run and had all the momentum after Ithiel Horton hit a 3-pointer with 5:24 remaining.
But redshirt sophomore forward Alex Karaban responded with six straight UConn points — three clutch baskets, including a fadeaway baseline jumper late in the shot clock — to spark a 10-2 UConn run to put the game out of reach.
Karaban finished with a team-high 20 points in his continued emergence as a go-to guy following the departures of NBA draft picks Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson and All-American big man Adama Sanogo.
“I learned from Jordan and all those guys just to trust your work and just to always have confidence,” Karaban said. “I saw it every day in their work, I saw it every day in practice. They were always hitting those shots, they always trusted their skills. And it translated to the game.”
With star big man Donovan Clingan saddled with foul trouble and limited to 13 minutes, Hurley turned to Samson Johnson off the bench. Johnson responded with a career-high 15 points and eight rebounds, constantly making highlight-reel plays at both ends of the floor.
“That’s why we play at UConn,” Johnson said. “Moments like that.”