NEW YORK (AP) — When the fifth-ranked UConn Huskies suddenly found themselves in a close fight, Alex Karaban answered.
Karaban scored 20 points, including three clutch jumpers down the stretch, and Connecticut turned back No. 15 Texas 81-71 on Monday night to win the Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden.
“Huge momentum for us,” Karaban said. “It’s something great to build on.”
Cam Spencer had 16 points and Samson Johnson set career highs with 15 points and eight rebounds off the bench for the defending national champion Huskies (5-0), who have won 22 consecutive nonconference games — all by double digits.
“I just think the program’s got so much confidence,” coach Dan Hurley said. “And we’re pretty relentless. The coaches are relentless. The players are relentless. We’re going to try to beat you by as many as we can beat you by.”
Dillon Mitchell scored a career-best 21 on 9-of-12 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds for the undermanned Longhorns (4-1), who played without starting forward Kadin Shedrick. Tyrese Hunter had 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds.
Huskies point guard Tristen Newton, who added eight points and eight assists, was selected tournament MVP. Newton had 23 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in Sunday’s 77-57 semifinal win over Indiana.
“We’ve got a lot of weapons,” Hurley said. “A lot of people that can beat you.”
With chants of “Let’s go, Huskies!” coming from a crowd of 10,988 about 140 miles south of UConn’s campus, the school won its first Empire Classic title since 2013 and its 11th championship at Madison Square Garden, including seven Big East Tournament crowns.
Texas trailed by 14 with 7:05 left before Hunter keyed a quick 10-0 spurt that trimmed it to 71-67. But then Karaban drained three huge shots in the final five minutes, twice barely beating the shot clock, to make sure the Huskies held on.
“He’s a burgeoning great player,” Hurley said. “This guy has a knack for making big shots.”
With a flurry of 3-pointers and dunks, some coming on the offensive glass, UConn used a 9-0 run to race out to a 16-point lead less than nine minutes into the game and took a 46-33 lead into halftime.
“Really good ballgame,” Longhorns coach Rodney Terry said. “I thought we competed and played Texas basketball in the second half, and showed some toughness and grit that we have to have in the Big 12.”
UConn: Looking to become the first repeat national champions since Florida in 2006 and 2007, the Huskies passed their biggest test yet this season and are off to a strong start.
Texas: Playing without Shedrick and 6-foot-9 standout Dylan Disu (recovering from offseason foot surgery), the Longhorns clawed back into the game with a spirited effort in the second half against one of the nation’s top teams.
“High ceiling for this group,” Terry said. “When we’ve got everybody out there on the floor and playing together, it’s going to be a pretty deep and pretty good team.”
UConn: Will host Manhattan in Hartford on Friday afternoon and then New Hampshire at Gampel Pavilion next Monday night before a high-profile game at No. 1 Kansas on Dec. 1.
Texas: Will host Wyoming on Sunday afternoon and then Texas State on Nov. 30 before a visit to No. 4 Marquette on Dec. 6.
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