Adama Sanogo at heart of UConn men’s basketball’s OT win over St. John’s: ‘The guy is a monster’

Photo of Mike Anthony
Adama Sanogo, seen dunking against Binghamton early in the season, has a 26 points and a career-high 18 rebounds in an overtime win over St. John’s Wednesday.

Adama Sanogo, seen dunking against Binghamton early in the season, has a 26 points and a career-high 18 rebounds in an overtime win over St. John’s Wednesday.

Stephen Dunn / Associated Press

STORRS — The Gampel Pavilion crowd wasn’t in a panic. It was beyond that. It was well into the phase of almost silently processing a basketball meltdown that UConn was left with just 4.2 seconds and one play to correct.

Adama Sanogo, the dependable force on a team always ready to run through a brick wall and sometimes into one, made everything all right. He grabbed a rebound of Tyrese Martin’s miss with 1.3 seconds remaining, drew a foul on the put-back attempt and made one of two free throws to push UConn into overtime and, ultimately, toward an 86-78 victory over St. John’s.

What a shame it would have been if one of the best performances of Sanogo’s career came in the context of such crushing defeat. UConn blew an 11-point lead, fizzling down the stretch, but wound up with the rope in a brutal Big East tug-o-war largely because they had the biggest, baddest, coolest guy on the court.

Sanogo had 26 points, six blocks and a career-high 18 rebounds three days after posting 18 points and a then-career high 16 rebounds in an overtime loss at Seton Hall. Two conference games, two overtimes, 72 minutes, 44 points, 34 rebounds, nine blocks, 18 for 33 shooting.

Sanogo was a preseason All-Big East honorable mention.

Today he is the answer to so many of the questions surrounding UConn, ones even created by the Huskies.

“When he doesn’t play, it sucks for us,” coach Dan Hurley said. “The guy is a monster.”

Sanogo missed four games and was severely limited behind the scenes for about a month with an abdominal injury before gingerly returning to play 12 minutes Dec. 21 at Marquette. He’s truly back now, breaking out, as if he spent that month and the weeks of the program’s COVID pause shaking like something ready to uncork on one of the toughest conferences in America.

Wednesday’s game was all fun until it was torture, then fun again because Sanogo prolonged it by owning it. Fittingly, he wound up with the ball as the final horn sounded, clutching it with both hands, the last of his 13 defensive rebounds. The crowd was in a much different mood by this point.

“You see what he’s going to be as a player here,” Hurley said. “His abilities are obviously high level. And he just has so much self-belief. He does not blink. He thinks he’s better than everybody and you cannot convince him otherwise, but he works like he’s a nobody on his game. He’s humble that way, but he’s arrogant when the ball goes up. And that’s what you need to do in sports.”

St. John’s coach Mike Anderson looked at the box score during his postgame press conference.

“I thought we did a decent job on him,” Anderson said. “But I look at his stat line and, man, he went crazy.”

Essentially, yes. Sanogo was also poised enough to make the first of two free throws with 1.3 seconds remaining, after UConn had advanced the ball about 80 of the necessary 94 feet with a fortuitous deflection of Andre Jackson’s long pass toward R.J. Cole by a Red Storm player.

Cole inbounded to Martin on the left. He missed long but Sanogo was on the back side.

What’s it like to go to the line with the game on the line with a second to go?

“It feels good,” Sanogo said. “I was a little bit nervous. But, two shots. I needed to make one.”

UConn devoured the overtime opportunity, building a nine-point lead. Sanogo had four points and two rebounds in that five-minute block, as active as he had been throughout a game UConn could have — probably should have — run away with.

Sanogo, the 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, was at the heart of the game’s first emphatic moment, a blinding stretch that turned a 20-20 tie into a 25-20 UConn lead. Martin spun, drew contact, made one of two free throws and blocked a shot at the other end. Andre Jackson, looking like a player bound to tear down a backboard before he’s done in Storrs, dunked on the run. Sanogo then grabbed a rebound and got down court to quickly score inside.

Sanogo’s layup on a feed from Jackson made it 44-36, and he followed with a fade-away jumper. His alley-oop dunk from R.J. Cole gave the Huskies a 50-39 lead, but the following 14:55 would grow increasingly uncomfortable due to misses — from the field and at the line — and turnovers.

UConn didn’t look right. The game was messy. And the Huskies found themselves trailing when St. John’s brilliant forward, Julian Champagnie, make a 3-pointer to give the Red Storm a 71-70 lead with 4.8 seconds remaining.

The game doesn’t have to be remembered for that brutal moment, though. It can be remembered for Sanogo’s heavy haul of contributions. Sanogo’s put-back dunk to make it 66-62 gave him 20 points and 15 rebounds.

His return changed everything, just like his absence. He’s a fulcrum for a team figuring out quite a few things in other areas.

“His presence affects our 3-point shooting, too,” Hurley said. “It has a cascading effect. The rim protection at the defensive end of the court, the physicality, but at the offensive end we shoot the ball better when he plays because we get better looks at 3 because teams are very concerned with guarding him. We went 9-for-22 from 3, and that’s not a coincidence.”

Sanogo couldn’t spend his time away taking steps toward a return. He was immobilized for a stretch. He just had to heal.

“The nature of his injury,” Hurley said. “He couldn’t do anything with a basketball or any cardio. Completely shut down. It’s not like he was able to do skill work and dummy offense and non-live type of things. He couldn’t do anything. That Marquette game was one month shut down. He practiced, literally, one time, and played 12 minutes in that game.”

He’s back now though, setting new standards for himself.

Prior to Saturday’s game in Newark, N.J., Sanogo’s career-high for rebounds was 10 — in last season’s regular-season finale against Georgetown and against Michigan State in November.

His career-high for points coming into the season was 16 last March against Seton Hall, part of a freshman year in which he averaged 17 minutes, 7.3 points and 4.6 rebounds. Sanogo had a career-high 30 points in the Huskies’ victory over Auburn at the Battle 4 Atlantis — Auburn’s only loss.

“Adama is big time,” Cole said.

Adama is healthy. Adama is a force. Adama has taken his game to another level and UConn needed every point and every rebound he provided Wednesday.

“The game against Seton Hall, I was not supposed to play like 25 minutes,” Sanogo said. “But when I was in the game, they kept asking me, ‘Good?’ I was like, ‘I’m good.’ It feels good to be 100 percent right now. I think I’m 100 percent.”; @ManthonyHearst