Men’s Basketball: UConn battles in tough loss to UCF

Christian Vital has been a bright spot for the Huskies with his tenacity. Photo by Eric Wang/The Daily Campus

Effort, grit and hustle have been themes for the Dan Hurley led Huskies this season, but they proved to not be enough Saturday afternoon as UConn suffered a 65-53 loss to conference rival UCF; the Knight’s first road win over the Huskies in program history.

UConn (9-6, 0-2 The American) opened up conference play with an embarrassing loss at USF after letting a halftime lead slip away. While the result remained the same, the Huskies were determined to make a change in how they prepared and played against “the second best team” the Huskies have faced this year, according to Hurley.

“It’s kind of hard to sit up here as a coach at UConn and feel real good about the effort or feel better about yourself after a 12-point home loss,” Hurley said postgame. “But after Wednesday’s game, the shame and embarrassment of our effort, the way we challenged guys coming in here about their effort, competitive nature, competitive character, I’m not sure we could have played much harder.”

The first score of the afternoon came from Alterique Gilbert by way of the long ball, the first of his four made on the day. UConn would open up with a 7-0 lead and battle their way to a 33-30 deficit heading into halftime. Gilbert shot 5-9 from the field, scoring 16 of his 18 points in the opening half and finished the day with four rebounds and an assist.

“I think we were full of fight tonight, especially how we approached the game today and how everyone prepared and the way we stayed together,” Gilbert said. “I was proud of my guys.”

The second half was a tale of inefficient shooting and turnovers, areas the Huskies are not unfamiliar with. Although Christian Vital shot 6-9, scoring 13 of his 15 points following halftime, the Huskies as a whole shot just 24 percent from the field and 18 percent from deep in the second half. Ten turnovers compared to UCF’s seven in the half did not help the Huskies’ cause either.

A Vital putback dunk, followed by a muscle flex and a roar to the crowd, brought all 10,541 in the XL Center to their feet. Moments later, Vital knocked down a long ball of his own to tie things at 40 apiece and kept the crowd loud and standing.

Things went downhill from here however.

Although UCF’s 7’6” Tacko Fall was held to just three points and five rebounds, the Huskies frontcourt play was not stellar. Tyler Polley and Josh Carlton started and combined for four points (2-7 FG) and seven rebounds. Senior Eric Cobb provided four points and eight boards off the bench for a Huskies team that held a 4-0 advantage in offensive rebounds, but could only muster six second chance points.

Aubrey Dawkins “put on a show” in UCF’s first road win over UConn. Finally healthy and able to play, the coach’s son scored 23 points on 9-13 shooting and 2-4 from beyond the arc. Dawkins ability to hit contested shots and make plays helped elevate UCF to 12-2 overall and 2-0 in the conference.

Jalen Adams’ struggles continued in this one as the senior guard shot just 2-10 on the day and finished with as many rebounds as turnovers (3). However, Hurley noted Adam’s defense on UCF’s B.J Taylor throughout the contest. Taylor, the preseason selection to win conference player of the year, scored 12 on just 2-7 shooting, three assists and a pair of rebounds.

“I loved how he showed up today,” Hurley said. “He was about business and he was serious about playing and I thought he did a great job on B.J. Taylor.”

UConn’s growing pains continue and will continue for the early part of Hurley’s tenure. The former Rhode Island coach listed a number of areas that need improvement as he rebuilds the program, closing out games being one of them.

“The ‘here we go again’ mindset that comes from losing being deeply embedded in your DNA at a place like this that’s used to winning, it’s a hurdle,” Hurley said. “It’s a hurdle that programs gotta get over. You get over it by going to work every day with this team and continue to try to build confidence and build great habits with the people that are here.”

UConn will be tested again when they welcome a 10-4 SMU team to Gampel Pavilion next Thursday, Jan. 10. Tip off is set for 7 p.m.

“I feel like we took a big step forward,” Cobb said. “We just need to build from this point on and just never look back.”


Kevin Arnold is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at kevin.arnold@uconn.edu.