For the past few years, a lot has been going wrong with UConn men’s basketball. This is no secret. But on Saturday night, the Huskies had a daunting task in front of them: Beat a big-name conference opponent, give the crowd a show and gain some momentum for a tough schedule ahead.
They did all three in dominant fashion, defeating Wichita State 80-60, in front of the first sold-out crowd Gampel has seen since opening night. It was UConn’s biggest conference win all season in terms of points, but also in terms of significance. After two losing seasons where building momentum was a rare occurrence, nearly everyone who logged minutes made some sort of difference on the court.
Jalen Adams had 19 points and 12 rebounds. Christian Vital dominated in all areas with 21 points, five rebounds, five assists and no turnovers. Tyler Polley scored 12 and hit three of five 3-pointers. Josh Carlton went 4-for-4 from the field with six rebounds and four blocks. Eric Cobb got seven rebounds in 13 minutes off the bench.
Yes, this all happened in one game.
“We’re seeing a shift happening with these guys right now,” head coach Dan Hurley said postgame. “I think we were pretty determined coming in, but when you get a crowd like that at home, it’s hard not to play at a high level.”
The crowd, of course, was a big part of it. The student section was packed and as loud as ever, and the fans were clad in white (most of them were, anyway), cheering just as loud during player intros as they did when a big shot went in.
Football recruits were in attendance. New basketball additions, like top-30 recruit Akok Akok, know they made the right choice when they see performances like this. Adams even attributed the team’s performance to the crowd.
“From layup lines, the whole crowd was pumping us up, cheering us on, and it’s fun to play in front of that,” Adams said. “It’s easy to make the extra pass when you’ve got a crowd like that. You see someone else make a three, everyone else starts having fun.”
While he wasn’t making threes, Carlton built off a career-high 18-point game with another strong performance, playing spectacular defense and giving the Huskies a strong presence down low to make the offense more dynamic.
His development is increasingly important not just for the short-term success of the team now, but the longer-term success Hurley is looking to accomplish within the next few years. Since Carlton barely got any playing time last season, Hurley said this is like a first year for him.
“You can just see him coming out,” Hurley said. “He has the skill level, but now his motor is picking up, the rebounding, the defensive presence—those were some impressive blocks—we have a chance to be better offensively and defensively with the way he’s emerging right now.”
The biggest thing Carlton has gained from this, he said, is confidence.
“Just having my own confidence and when I show confidence in myself, the guards have confidence in me,” Carlton said. “Just seeing that I want the ball and I want to try and make a play off it.”
One of the guards who made plays happen is Vital. For someone often tagged with being inconsistent, Vital had one of his better all-around games of his three-year career. Even Hurley was surprised: “Five assists and zero turnovers? Is that a typo?”
As Vital continues to get better, the rest of the team grows around him. Adams built off a season-high 31 points against Tulane with his first double-double of the season, and the guard duo has “the best chemistry in the country,” as Vital puts it.
“We know each other’s game so much, we know where we want the ball,” Vital said, “and as you saw, when it’s time to take over, him and I, we can do that together.”
He is, of course, referring to when Alterique Gilbert went down in a heap when he ran into a hard screen in the back end of the second half, and the team had to carry on without him. After a few minutes of looking disjointed, Adams and Vital brought UConn back and assured everyone that a Wichita comeback was not in the cards.
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said Adams played the best he’s ever seen him play on Saturday, but Jalen doesn’t agree.
“I don’t think I played my best, I just did what my team needed me to do,” Adams said. “They didn’t really need too much from me, everybody was on today. I just got the ball to the right people, made the good effort plays and I think that’s what stood out.”