St. John's came strong at the kings of the Big East early on Saturday but not quite strong enough, as No. 1 UConn methodically picked apart and wore down Rick Pitino's frisky Johnnies with a comfortable 77-64 win inside Madison Square Garden to maintain its substantial lead in the regular season conference race.

UConn star freshman Stephon Castle continued his ascension to stardom with a career-high 21 points, besting his previous career-high of 20, which he set earlier in the week vs. Providence in a barnburner. Castle finished 7 of 12 shooting and added two assists, three rebounds and a steal. Backcourt teammate Cam Spencer was a shot in the arm for the Huskies, too, adding a game-high 23 points -- 17 of which came in the second half -- to ice the game late.

St. John's led 37-36 at halftime after shooting 4-of-8 from 3-point range in the opening frame led by Daniss Jenkins' 13 points, and it seemed to have answers for every punch UConn threw its way for the first 30 minutes of play. UConn, though -- even without starting forward Alex Karaban and with starting center Donovan Clingan largely ineffective due to foul trouble -- imposed its will late with clutch shots and stingy defense. With Clingan sidelined most of the second half, UConn had to go small and still managed to win running away without arguably its most impactful player.

"I think [being able to win with small lineups] just shows why we're the No. 1 team," Castle on Fox. "We can find a way to win without one of our big guys, without one of our guards -- we just find ways to win."

Here are three takeaways from the game.

Castle keeps climbing

Just when you thought contributions from Tristen Newton, Hassan Diarra, Solomon Ball, Spencer and occasional bursts from star freshman prospect Castle would be the recipe to UConn's potential repeat -- Castle goes and changes the formula. The former five-star recruit and potential lottery pick one-upped his career-high in scoring from earlier in the week with 21 vs. the Johnnies, in the process showing improved shot-making and decision-making that is further elevating UConn's already sky-high postseason ceiling.

UConn has so many weapons in the backcourt it's laughable and a difference-making center in Clingan to balance things out. If Castle can play like this or close to this moving forward, then the formula for a repeat for UConn seems not only possible, but maybe even likely. This team is playing at a level that last season's title team arguably never reached.

Spencer saves best for last

Coach Dan Hurley's fiery, competitive spirit is matched on the court with Spencer, a senior transfer who gutted his way to a game-high 23 points in the win after a quiet first half. Spencer was key for UConn's defensive turnaround in the second half and started taking and making shots when it was needed in the final frame, too. Fittingly, he put the finishing touches on St. John's with his play then as the game ended, not-so-kindly wished St. John's fans to exit stage left. What a legend. 

UConn doesn't need big games from big men

Clingan and Samson Johnson combined for nine points, nine fouls and 38 mostly empty minutes. And UConn won by 13 points with its most effective lineups on the day largely without them.

That's the sign of a contender: finding ways to win through adversity.

Clingan rates as the most efficient player on both offense and defense for UConn this season, per data from, and UConn as a team has its best adjusted efficiency margin when he is on the floor vs. when he is off it. That he only played sparingly is a scary sign for the rest of the Big East -- and college hoops, for that matter. If this version of UConn (limited Clingan, no Karaban) can run through St. John's on the road, then imagine just how good this team can be when it is firing on all cylinders.