MEMPHIS — Jalen Adams fouls out with over four minutes remaining. Josh Carlton plays just 16 minutes and does not score. UConn goes seven minutes without a field goal in the second half and shoots just 60 percent from the free throw line. Put it all together, and it’s not a scenario where you would expect UConn to win many games, let alone a conference tournament opener in March.
But the Huskies aren’t done yet.
“We’re not thinking about going back to Storrs right now,” junior Christian Vital said after the game. “We’ve been through a lot this year and now it’s March, so it’s time to lay everything out on the line.”
With UConn’s bigs in deep foul trouble throughout the game, it was going to take a special performance from the backcourt to pull out a win against USF. That’s exactly what happened.
Vital was unconscious from deep, dropping 25 points including 6-of-9 from beyond the arc. Adams put up 19 before fouling out with 4:06 remaining and Tarin Smith had 14. All in all, the three combined for 58 of UConn’s 80, shooting 61 percent from the field and drilling 11 3-pointers.
“Our guards played great,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Tarin got off to a great start, Christian and Jalen played at an incredibly high level.”
In a physical, whistle-heavy game, the UConn frontcourt struggled to stay on the floor and struggled to do much when on it. Carlton, who entered the game on a tear, was limited to just 16 minutes. While he was a strong presence on the defensive end, piling up four blocks and six boards, he was a complete non-factor offensively, failing to score for the first time since the Dec. 2 loss to Arizona.
What do you do when you can’t score inside? You let it fly from deep—and when you’re as hot as UConn was from outside, it’s hard to lose.
In UConn’s previous meeting with USF on March 3, the Huskies missed all 15 treys they attempted, the first game in 10 years without making a 3-pointer. On Thursday, it seemed every time a Husky took a shot from beyond the arc, it splashed.
UConn (16-16, 7-12 The American) hit nine 3-pointers in the first half and shot 66.7 percent from the floor overall, both American Athletic Conference tournament records.
“It was a great feeling, I was just out there having fun with my teammates,” Adams said on the first half onslaught. “Especially when it’s do-or-die, and you see everything going in the hoop like that, it’s a great feeling and you build so much confidence.”
It all started with the backcourt trio of Adams, Vital and Smith. After a sluggish start, Smith scored UConn’s first seven, making three straight shots. Adams tacked on the next nine, knocking down three consecutive 3s. Shortly afterwards, Vital followed that up with two deep treys of his own.
“I felt good, I was ready to fire,” Smith said. “My coach has confidence in me, my assistant coaches have confidence in me, and my teammates were telling me to shoot it.”
By the time the 3-point barrage was over, it was a 19-1 UConn run, the Huskies were 9-of-11 from deep and they had built a 37-18 lead that they would never surrender.
Leading 39-26 at the break, steady backcourt play and deadly sharpshooting continued to carry the Huskies through much of the second half. The frontcourt, however, wasn’t a complete no-show, as an unexpected contributor emerged: sophomore Isaiah Whaley.
Whaley was expected to play a significant role this season, but went down an ankle injury in the season opener and, especially with the early season success of senior Eric Cobb, he largely fell out of the rotation.
“It’s tough because obviously Josh has come on… Eric earned the backup spot, Isaiah was hurt a lot in the early part of the season,” Hurley said. “But Isaiah is such a high character guy, he’s a pretty smart player. We kind of tipped him off the last couple days…about being ready, and Porkchop was ready today.”
With Carlton in foul trouble and Cobb struggling on the defensive end, Whaley played a season-high 11 minutes on Thursday, and fully seized the opportunity. The sophomore tied his career-high with eight points, making all three of his attempts including two energizing dunks. He, too, ran into foul trouble and ended up fouling out with 5:49 remaining, but he had already more than served his role.
“It’s been tough, especially after I went down early with my ankle and falling back in the rotation,” Whaley said. “But the whole time I was just trying to keep myself ready for moments like this and stay positive…Coach has just been telling me to be ready, I don’t know if he knew something I didn’t, but he really wanted me to be ready today.”
Things got dicey as the clocked ticked down. The Huskies went seven minutes without making a shot, the Bulls went on an 8-0 run and all of a sudden the 18-point lead had shrunk to six. It’s not a coincidence that most of that happened without Adams on the floor, having picked up his fifth foul.
But even without its leader, UConn closed the door on USF. Vital knocked down a few from the line, Sidney Wilson came alive and the Huskies hung on to win, 80-73, setting up a date with No. 1 seed Houston on Friday.
“I didn’t panic at all, I know my teammates didn’t panic either,” Vital said. “Throughout the year, everyone has become more confident each game, each practice. When I was out there, I knew that the other four guys out there were confident in themselves, and we were gonna win that game no matter what.”