The UConn men’s basketball team needed extra time to defeat Columbia at Gampel Pavilion, and in front of a crowd of 3,808, rode a 29-point performance from Christian Vital to scrape out a 77-73 victory.
Vital hurt his right shoulder during his smart play against Oregon when he threw the ball off a player out of bounds. Vital contemplated sitting out the game against Columbia, but he loosened up his shoulder enough to play.
Good thing he did.
“I finished out the tournament because I didn’t want to leave my teammates out there. Didn’t play too well out there, obviously, but I came back and I’ve been able to rehab and now (my shoulder is) starting to feel better day by day,” Vital said.
Vital had a monster first half, scoring 17 points, but netted only five in the second half. But his seven overtime points and a huge defensive play saved the game for the Huskies.
“I was just playing out the game, and I was able to be in the right spots,” Vital said of his performance Wednesday night. “I always find that if I do flow in the game and I put myself in the right spots that I’m going to help the team regardless.”
Antwoine Anderson hit a 3-pointer to start overtime play, and Vital hit a 3-point shot of his own after Columbia tied the game. He hit a jumper to extend UConn’s lead to four with 54 seconds to go, and on the biggest play of the night, stole the ball off Columbia’s inbounds play with 5.4 seconds to go to seal the deal.
“I just felt like my toughness just needed to be felt,” Vital said of the steal. “I felt like I was in the position to help us secure that win and I was like, it’s time for me to step up.”
Coming off the bench, Mamadou Diarra played some of the best minutes of the game, earning UConn’s first double-double of the year with 11 points and 10 rebounds. He had five points and six rebounds in just 10 minutes of first half play.
“We was actually speaking earlier, just saying, ‘Hey, we’re down some guys, this is a game for you to step up.’ And for him to respond with a double-double just shows where his mindset has been. He’s just staying ready and I’m really proud of him,” Vital said.
He played just 17 minutes before Wednesday’s game, but he’s making his case to be in the starting lineup.
“Coach always tells me, ‘Just stay ready. Your time will come.’ I just took that with a grain of salt and kept working and just waited for my moment,” Diarra said. “I just used my energy to help the team today. I definitely feel like that’s my role.”
Of course, the team started out lifeless for most of the first half, allowing Columbia to open up the game on a 12-4 run. After the Huskies fought back to tie it, the Lions’ hit four of their next five baskets from downtown and an easy layup widened their lead to 15.
Diarra scored two baskets in the paint followed by two straight 3-pointers from Vital, who led UConn in the first half with 17. After hitting only five shots from beyond the arc in 27 tries through five games, he hit five of seven in the first half. He ended the game 7-for-12 from 3-point range.
Columbia hit seven of their first 10 3-point attempts before missing five straight to end the half. Lukas Meisner, who shoots 46 percent from downtown and 56 percent from the floor, led Columbia in the first half with 15 points and finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds.
After trailing 41-30 at the half, the Huskies found themselves in a hole that Anderson, who scored all 14 of his points in the last 25 minutes of the game, said the team couldn’t keep getting themselves in.
“I think that we just need to wake up and have more fight in us from the beginning of the game,” Anderson said. “Starting off slow like that will catch up to us and we can’t afford that.”
Anderson has quietly been one of UConn’s better players this season. With Jalen Adams going 1-for-9 from the field with only two points until six minutes to go in the half, Anderson stepped up to help get the Huskies back in the game. He scored seven straight points to put UConn back within eight with 9:11 to go, and hit another jumper after an Adams free throw to bring the score to 56-50.
Adams scored two straight layups to bring the Huskies within two and hit two straight jumpers, including the game-tying one with 19 seconds to go after Columbia’s Quinton Adlesh hit a go-ahead 3-pointer, to cap off UConn’s second half comeback. He finished with 11 points and seven assists.
For head coach Kevin Ollie, though the offense wasn’t completely there, the defensive effort and Adams’ assists were a big part of the win.
“It started on the defensive end. (Jalen) started playing defense, (Christian) started playing defense, it was the only way we could get back in the game,” Ollie said. “We couldn’t trade baskets with them—we started getting stops.”