Dec. 5—STORRS — UConn found out what life is like without two of its cornerstone players on Saturday.
Facing a vastly inferior opponent, the 17th-ranked Huskies survived just fine.
With injured starters Adama Sanogo and Tyrese Martin watching from the sideline, UConn relied on a pressure defense and a balanced offensive attack in an 88-59 rout of Grambling State at Gampel Pavilion.
The Huskies forced 16 turnovers, leading to 23 points, while veterans R.J. Cole (18 points, seven assists, five rebounds) and Isaiah Whaley (12 points, eight rebounds) along with freshman Jordan Hawkins (15 points) had productive games.
At 8-1, they're off to their best start since 2013-14 when they won their first nine.
The outcome was never in doubt against Grambling (3-6). UConn seized the lead for good two minutes into the game and led by as many as 32.
"I just thought we played a lot more to our identity," coach Dan Hurley said. "Obviously, we've got adjustments that we've got to make to losing the two guys that we lost of the caliber of Adama and Tyrese for the foreseeable future."
Martin (left wrist) is out for 2-4 weeks while Sanogo (abdominal strain) a minimum of three weeks. They're averaging a combined 28.5 points and 14 rebounds pergame, but their impact goes far beyond statistics.
UConn is about to find out more about whether it can survive without the talented pair, playing its first true road game of the season at West Virginia Wednesday and facing St. Bonaventure next Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
Hurley is changing things up to take advantage of the team's athleticism and play a style more suited to his roster.
On Saturday, Hurley increased the defensive pressure to speed the game up, rattling the Tigers into 13 first half turnovers.
It was a big reason why UConn led 47-30 at intermission.
"We wanted to pressure them and we wanted to try to dictate terms more," Hurley said. "We've got away from getting after people and picking up and using our athleticism. Now, with Adama out in particular, we've got to be able to play faster and get into people more in the full court.
"It's obviously a lot easier to do today."
UConn's veterans took charge early on and later helped to put the game away.
Whaley sparked a 15-2 run, scoring nine points, to help create a comfortable 11-point advantage with 4:47 left in the first half.
At the beginning of the second half, Cole carved up the defense with penetrating drives to the basket. He fed a cutting Akok Akok for a dunk and then scored on contested layup and added a basket off an inbounds play for a 53-34 edge.
The Huskies cruised to the finish line.
"I think we responded well," Cole said about playing without Martin and Sanogo. "The guys, like coach said, needed to respond with passion, and they did today. Everybody stepped up. ... and we came out with a good win."
Hurley went deep into his bench, using nine players including freshmen Samson Johnson and Rahsool Diggins who've seen very limited action this season.
Johnson, a 6-foot-10 forward with a bright future, had career highs in points (five), rebounds (six), blocks (three), 3-pointers made (one) and minutes (20).
Look out when Johnson gets a clue about what's going on, according to Hurley.
"You see the talent out there with him," Hurley said.
Hawkins started in place of Martin, who missed his second straight game, and finished with his third double figure game and took a season-high 11 shots, sinking five.
"I've always been confident in my shot," Hawkins said. "I'm just taking more now. I've got to step up with guys out."
It was an important game for Akok, who's off to a slow start. Filling in for Sanogo in the starting lineup, Akok finished with 10 points, equaling his scoring total from the previous five games combined, added six rebounds and a season-high four blocks.
"I thought Akok responded well," Hurley said. "He looked more like himself, he looked more confident. Obviously, with the way the level of competition is heading, the guy is going to feel more confident going into next week."
Now the real fun begins.
The next 22 games will include two tough non-conference contests and a grueling 20-game Big East schedule.
No more weak teams like Grambling State left to play.
"These buy games, they suck," Hurley said. "You're just trying to avoid disaster and you just pray that your guys don't take the game lightly and you just don't blow your season up by blowing one of these games. The next 22, that's what this thing is all about."