It started out as a good night for UConn men’s basketball. The senior tribute video was heartwarming. Everybody got excited when the clip of Jalen’s 75-foot shot played—twice. The game started slow, but UConn was only down by five at the half and held a small lead late into the second half. It looked like the Huskies could really pull off an undefeated season at Gampel.
Then, an elbow met a nose. And that nose happened to belong to Alterique Gilbert, who’s been back for just four games since his most recent injury. He wasn’t moving. His face was gushing blood. By the time he was escorted to the locker room, his white jersey was stained red.
A 58-56 lead with eight minutes to go devolved into a seven-point deficit when the clock hit 40 seconds. UConn was outscored 22-13 to end the game once Gilbert got hurt and ultimately lost, 78-71.
“Al brings a different presence to this team,” Christian Vital, who scored a season-high 26 points, said. “He’s a really good player. He’s one of our best players. Clearly, whenever you have one of your better players go down, it’s gonna just disrupt the team—especially in the second half like that, we had our flow going.”
“He can be the heartbeat of your team,” head coach Dan Hurley added. “He’s such a fun guy to deal with every day because all he does is give his best and all he does it care about UConn basketball and his teammates. It’s hard to see him just have to deal with the stuff he has to deal with all the time.”
UConn said Gilbert took an elbow to the nose, while some fans insist he was slapped in the face. Either way, he was taken to the emergency room and Hurley doesn’t know what his status is yet for Sunday and beyond.
“Him going down kind of caught us off-guard as a team,” Vital said. “He was playing well. He was helping us control the flow of the game. He had a large part of us getting the lead and being able to keep the lead for multiple possessions, so it was just tough for him to go down and hopefully we can get him back as soon as possible.”
It was Vital and Josh Carlton who ultimately stole the show on Senior Night, though. Vital scored 13 of UConn’s first 17 points, four of them being 3s. The rest of the team went 1-for-14 from the floor in that span, with a Carlton dunk being the only other bucket.
Vital, who has been demoted from surefire starter to bench player in recent games, went 8-for-13 from the floor and 7-for-11 from 3-point range off the bench.
“I know what my role is on this team. I know I’m one of the older guys,” Vital said. “I just try to be a person that [the young guys] can look to and try to be a good example. That’s the challenge on me and I just have to control that every single day.”
Carlton, who has only been improving as the season’s gone on, had 21 points and seven rebounds.
“Josh is a talented player. Josh is a guy that will get better and better. He’s gotten better and better,” Hurley said. “He was close to getting us 20 and 10 today. His rim protection is better than I thought it would be.”
Hurley said before the game Wednesday that the team’s focus would be less on scoring and more on tough, gritty defense. But that tough defense he preached about had a tough time guarding Temple’s premier 3-point shooters. The Owls hit five of their first seven from beyond the arc and ended 7-for-12.
Shizz Alston Jr. hit three of those four 3-pointers and finished four of five from beyond the arc. He dropped 34 points, including a perfect 6-for-6 performance at the line. He’s the 10th-best free throw shooter in the country with a 90.5 percent clip.
“He goes to the line late in the game and you go, ‘These two are going in,’” said Temple head coach Fran Dunphy, who was honored before the game for his 30 years of coaching.
That’s not something UConn can say right now. While Gilbert going down was a gut-punch, the Huskies truly lost the game at the charity stripe. They missed a myriad of crucial freebies down the stretch and finished 13-for-24 (54.2 percent). Temple went 17-for-20.
“It just has to do with youth and just guys learning from their mistakes,” Hurley said. “And again, the free throw line. Older players step to the line and make free throws. Younger guys struggle at the line because it takes nerve and guts.”
As for the other seniors, there’s only so much Eric Cobb and Tarin Smith can contribute to the scoring. Smith played 34 minutes and only had six points to show for it; Cobb played six minutes with no shot attempts, two fouls and a turnover.