For a good stretch of the second half of Thursday’s home finale against Temple, the Huskies’ offense looked as good as it had all season. Outside shots were falling, the ball was swinging, Christian Vital and Josh Carlton were nearly unguardable.
Then, with seven minutes remaining, Alterique Gilbert suffered a scary injury, laying mostly motionless on the floor for several minutes and bleeding badly from his head. Gampel was stunned, and the Huskies along with it. By the time both recovered, the Owls had rattled off an 8-2 run, building a 70-64 lead that would prove to be insurmountable.
“I couldn’t stand in front of that group and be disappointed in their effort and the way they fought,” head coach Dan Hurley said of his team, especially the young core, after what he described as another “excruciating” loss. “Al goes down and obviously we didn’t handle that particularly well, but…this is how it’s supposed to look, the first step of this rebuild.”
It was a difficult end to an emotional Senior Night as the program said farewell to four players before the game. Despite 15 losses heading into Thursday night, UConn (14-16, 5-12 The American) had hoped to close out its first perfect season at Gampel Pavilion in 10 years. Instead, the program is likely now staring at a third consecutive season without a winning record. But something in the air has certainly changed.
“We would’ve lost this game by a lot last year, let’s be honest,” Vital said after the game. “But the fact that whoever’s on the court, we’re able to stick with it, play hard for each other, shows the growth individually and as a team.”
Jalen Adams, Eric Cobb, Tarin Smith and Kassoum Yakwe were all honored before the game, with Cobb and Smith getting the starting nod. Yakwe had season-ending surgery last month and Adams missed his seventh-straight game with an MCL sprain. It’s not yet known if he’ll be ready for the conference tournament next week.
Vital was spectacular, totaling 26 points, including 7-of-11 from beyond the arc, seven rebounds and three steals. Carlton was unstoppable in the paint, dropping 21 points, seven rebounds and a pair of blocks. But the night belonged to Temple’s (22-8, 12-5 The American) lead-scorer Shizz Alston Jr., one of the most talented players in the conference. The senior hijacked UConn’s Senior Night, pouring in 34 points on near-perfect 12-of-14 shooting.
The Huskies missed 10 of their first 12 shots, the only makes being a pair of deep 3-pointers from Vital. Trailing 17-8, a Carlton poster momentarily energized the offense and crowd, but the Owls gradually built a 10-point lead with 7:45 remaining in the half.
“We lost that one today with the way we started,” Hurley said. “We wanted to start the game really trying to pound the ball inside in the post…and not shoot a lot of perimeter shots until we established an inside presence, and we got away from that early.”
Each time UConn got within a bucket, Temple answered with a crowd-silencing, momentum-stuffing 3-pointer. A Vital steal-and-slam brought Gampel to its feet and the Huskies within one at 25-24, and Alston Jr. immediately responded with three points. A Tyler Polley runner made it 28-26, and Nate Pierre-Louis answered with another from deep.
Temple carried a slim 35-30 lead into the break. Vital had a phenomenal half, accounting for half of UConn’s offense with 15 points on 5-of-6 shooting, including 4-of-5 from deep, and two steals. The rest of the team? A combined 5-of-23 from the field with five turnovers.
The offenses got flowing in the second. With 15:22 remaining, UConn finally seized its first lead, 42-41, of the night on a Polley jumper from beyond the arc. The next eight minutes were a frantic back-and-forth, the teams exchanging deep 3s and emphatic dunks.
That all changed when, with 7:36 remaining, junior Alterique Gilbert took an apparent shot to the head and collapsed to the floor. He remained mostly motionless on the floor for several minutes before he was eventually helped off the court, thoroughly bloodied, and did not return. Hurley revealed after the game that Gilbert was taken to the emergency room, but had no further information.
“We’re making progress, but we’re also trying to get a healthy roster,” Carlton said. “Kind of feel like we’re taking a step back when you see a guy like Alterique go down, but as a team effort, we’re still progressing.”
When play resumed, the Huskies seemed as shocked as the Gampel crowd.
“Him going down caught us off guard,” Vital said. “Everyone in the room knows that Al brings a different presence to this team…Whenever you have one of your best players go down, it’s gonna disrupt the team, especially in the second half. We had our flow going, and it was tough for him to go down.”
Free throw shooting, which has plagued the Huskies for much of the season, was especially destructive for UConn last year. The team went just 13-of-24 from the stripe, including some costly misses down the stretch.
“The free throw shooting obviously played a huge factor in us not being able to win a close game,” Hurley said. “Excluding Al going down, if we made enough free throws, we certainly played well enough to win that game.”
The Huskies finish with an 8-1 record at Gampel this season, compared to just 5-4 at the XL Center. They play at ECU on Sunday before beginning the conference tournament in Memphis next week. Even after another soul-crushing loss and yet another devastating injury, there’s certainly optimism on the team.
“It’s our first year being together…a whole new coaching staff, new guys added on, people keep dropping at different times,” Vital said. “In that first year, we’re gonna fall sometimes. But this team is learning, we’re gonna click at the right time. I think we know what March is around here.”