It wasn’t pretty, but the UConn men’s basketball team used some of its most efficient shooting of the season to pull out a much-needed 68-65 win over USF Wednesday night.
The Huskies shot 54.3 percent from the field, their best performance since shooting 60 percent (33-for-55) against Arkansas back in November. Despite being badly beat on the boards, 36-27, UConn’s 32 points in the paint helped keep them ahead. USF’s 15 offensive rebounds translated into 24 second-chance points for them.
The Bulls only shot 37.7 percent from the field, but they trailed by as little as one point late in the second half because UConn all but stopped trying on defense. A timely 3-pointer from Terry Larrier, who looked more like himself with 15 points, and a 9-for-11 performance from Christian Vital on the free throw line kept UConn from another embarrassing loss. Jalen Adams led with 19 points.
“Not going to apologize for a win, we’ll take the win, but we didn’t win the right way,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “Not the UConn way. We have to do a better job. I know these guys can do it… but our inconsistency with the rebounds is alarming and it’s bad. And we have to do better.”
It was less of a crowd at Gampel and more of an intimate gathering. Those who trekked through the slushy weather were treated to a strong opening to the half from UConn. The Huskies opened up with one of their best sequences of the season—a David Onuorah dunk, an Antwoine Anderson block on the next possession and an Onuorah layup to send USF into timeout trailing 8-2.
The Bulls came firing back with a 14-5 run out of the timeout, putting UConn down 16-13 with 8:55 to go in the half. But UConn was in no mood to let the game get out of hand; they closed the half on a 22-7 run to put them up 35-23, their largest halftime lead of the season. The Huskies shot 51.7 percent from the field to USF’s 28.6 percent in the first half.
“We moved the ball. The ball had energy. We shared the basketball,” Ollie said of the strong offensive performance in the first half. “I thought our ball movement was good. We was getting to the basket. We had 32 points in the paint, which is great. We got out on the fast break, which was awesome.”
UConn opened up the second half slow, allowing the Bulls to hit their first two shots. They still led, 41-30, during the first media timeout, but they gave up nine straight points in the next two minutes to allow the Bulls to creep back within a basket.
Vital, who finished the game with 15 points, provided a spark for UConn with about 11 minutes to go, scoring five straight points to put them back up eight. But the Bulls wouldn’t go away, using a few offensive rebounds and a trey to bring the score to 52-49 with eight minutes to go.
Vital and Adams probed to be the only source of offense for the Huskies; Vital scored nine out of 11 points in a six-minute period and Adams dropped some buckets with under five minutes to go to keep the lead alive. The UConn defense all but broke down, committing four fouls in four minutes to allow the Bulls to stay in it.
“I think we got complacent,” Adams said. “Once we got up, I think guys kind of relaxed and that’s when they started attacking the offensive rebounding glass and chances. They were kicking out to their guards, and their guards would get wide-open looks, so eventually, they’re going to start knocking down shots, and that’s exactly what they did.”
With 2:35 to go and a five-point lead, Larrier hit a big 3-pointer at the end of the shot clock to put the Huskies up eight, perhaps putting a stopgap in USF’s momentum. The Bulls went the last four minutes of the game without a field goal. But UConn just couldn’t get anything going on the offensive end, and it all came down to free throws.
Vital missed two that would have put UConn up by six, but they caught a break when USF failed to score on the other end. An Anderson turnover allowed the Bulls to cut their deficit to two. Adams was fouled the next possession and missed his second free throw, setting up a scramble for the final shot of the game to potentially send it to overtime.
Luckily for the Huskies, it missed. And UConn walked away with a win—a sloppy one, but a much-needed one.
“I think we just didn’t do a good job offensive rebounding or defensive rebounding,” Adams said. “You don’t need any talent to be able to box out rebounds, it’s just toughness and effort and we gotta have those second and third mentality efforts to go get the ball and make sure [the man I’m guarding] doesn’t get it.”
“We haven’t gotten many breaks, but tonight was one of them,” Vital added. “Hopefully this new year and this new month, we can just find ways to win. And if we find ways to win; whoever scores, whoever makes the big play, I don’t really care. If we win, I’m cool with it. I’m cool with it."