The mood Wednesday night at Gampel Pavilion, among a sparse crowd of just 3,808 spectators, was very nervous. The UConn men’s basketball team, coming off a 35-point drubbing from Arkansas on Sunday, trailed the 1-4 Columbia Lions by as many as 15 points.
With off nights from leading scorers Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier, and Alterique Gilbert out with an injury, the Huskies desperately needed someone to step up offensively and help UConn avoid a potentially disastrous home loss. Sophomore guard Christian Vital came through, dropping 29 points off the bench to help his team escape with a 77-73 win in overtime.
“His performance was great. He came out and hit some big shots for us. Going 7-for-12 from the 3-point line was huge,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said of Vital after the game. “I was very proud of CV. He had a bum shoulder, he was contemplating not playing.”
Vital confirmed that his right shoulder was bothering him Wednesday, but that didn’t stop him from catching fire in the first half and overtime. He scored 17 of UConn’s 30 first half points, keeping the Huskies down just 11 at the break despite poor offensive play and Columbia’s hot shooting, and put the Lions away with seven points in the extra period.
“The shoulder was hurt the whole game, but my team needed me, and I needed them, and we were able to [win],” Vital said.
It wasn’t just that end of the floor. Vital also sniffed out Columbia’s inbound play with four seconds left in overtime and UConn leading by two points, stealing the ball before canning two free throws to ice the game.
“I just felt like my toughness just needed to be felt, and 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,” Vital said of the winning steal.
Vital’s shooting was huge, and the Huskies were lucky to get a big effort from him on a night where they needed it. In the season’s first six games, Vital had scored six points or less five times, but the one time he didn’t was a career-high explosion of 30 points against Boston University. His 3-point shooting can run hot or cold, but it was certainly hot Wednesday.
Ever the team player, however, he wouldn’t take credit for dragging UConn back against Columbia.
“I didn’t really feel I needed to take over the game. We have great players,” Vital said. “I was just playing out the game and I was able to be in the right spot. I always find that, if I do flow in the game and I put myself in good spots, that I’m going to help the team regardless.”
Diarra makes his mark
Another player instrumental in saving UConn’s skin Wednesday was redshirt freshman forward Mamadou Diarra, who had played just 33 minutes in the first six games despite the Huskies’ thin frontcourt.
Diarra was given more playing time with Eric Cobb and Isaiah Whaley sitting out, and he responded in a big way, posting the Huskies’ first double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 rebounds.
He fouled out after just 20 minutes of play, keeping him out of overtime, but he established a presence in the paint and delivered buckets at crucial points in the game.
“He’s an energy guy,” Adams said of Diarra. “He gets the ball and just dunks and gets everybody pumped.”
His final contribution before fouling out was a tip-in bucket with 2:26 left to cut Columbia’s lead to one point after Adams missed a layup, so although he couldn’t be on the overtime, he was able to deliver a clutch moment
“Anything it takes to win the game, that’s what I want to do,” Diarra said.