Nearly every player has to go through a stretch of waiting for his turn, but it would’ve been hard to blame Isaiah Whaley if he stopped believing his turn would come this season.
Slowed by a high ankle sprain in September, at a time when he could have made an impression on the new coaching staff, Whaley, 6 feet 8, fell behind Josh Carlton and Eric Cobb on UConn’s depth chart at center. Whaley averaged 3.2 minutes in 21 games, sitting out 10. After playing seven minutes in the season opener against Morehead State, he never played more than five again.
“Isaiah is such a high-character guy and he’s a pretty smart player,” coach Dan Hurley said, “and we tipped him off the last couple of days. I know these guys have been talking to him. I know Jalen [Adams] talked to him about being ready, and ‘Pork Chop’ was ready today.”
Whaley got the name “Pork Chop” growing up in North Carolina; it was his favorite food.
As the Huskies’ first postseason game approached, Hurley had been dropping hints that Whaley’s turn was coming. As it developed, Carlton got into early foul trouble, Cobb played a stretch, and then Whaley got in against South Florida on Thursday with 11:35 left in the half. He made his mark, getting six points and four rebounds in the next 7:09 as the Huskies went from three points down to 18 points up, the turning point in an 80-73 victory in the first round of the AAC Tournament.
“It’s been tough,” Whaley said, “but I tried to keep myself ready for moments like this. … Sitting on the bench and watching and stuff, I’ve been wanting to get out there and help a lot. So being able to contribute, it felt good.”
Recruited to UConn as Kevin Ollie was trying to patch a team together following the wave of transfers in the spring of 2017, Whaley played in 30 games, started 12 as a freshman, averaging 2.6 points and 2.2 rebounds. This season, his minutes evaporated.
“Just going through this whole season, I felt like it was better for me,” Whaley said, “because if you could go through that mentally, you’re going to come out better for it. So I’ve been taking it as a positive thing.”
Whaley returned in the second half and did more damage, finishing with eight points, four rebounds and a steal in 11 minutes – and a plus/minus score of 26. When Jalen Adams found him open for a dunk, giving UConn a 48-31 lead, Adams celebrated more wildly than Whaley did.
“He’s so athletic, I don’t think people get a chance to see that,” Adams said. “… In practice, we’ve been telling him to keep his head up and control what he can control. He can’t control if coach puts him in or not, but he can control how hard he works day in and day out. He handled it very maturely for his age.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org