In a game in which the UConn men’s basketball team once trailed by 13, the Huskies proved that anything can be accomplished with enough effort, making a strong comeback to claim a 78-68 victory over Tulane in a packed Gampel Pavilion Saturday night.
“I love our guys’ perseverance,” Head Coach Kevin Ollie said. “Three games, three wins in a week with six guys… that’s my definition of perseverance. Cheering each other on, encouraging each other, practicing hard, it’s just a phenomenal feat by these guys.”
The Huskies (10-11, 5-4 the American) fell victim to a problem they seemed to have grown out of for a while: getting off to slow starts. While Amida Brimah hit two free throws to start the game, Tulane (4-17, 1-8 the American) went on a 14-4 run over the next five minutes amidst sloppy ball-handling on UConn’s side of the court, suddenly putting UConn in a 14-6 hole. Tulane’s Cameron Reynolds and Melvin Frazier combined for all of the Green Wave’s points over that stretch.
Christian Vital scored five points in a little over a minute to get UConn back within seven, but three straight layups from Tulane put them back up 26-13 with just over 10 minutes to play. UConn missed four straight shots before two feeds to Brimah finally got the packed Gampel crowd back on its feet, bringing the Huskies back within nine.
The first half told a tale of poor ball-handling and weak post defense. Tulane, a relatively small team in terms of height, was able to cut through UConn’s defense in the paint and drive to the basket with ease, shooting 42 percent from the field.
“I thought the kids running under the flag was probably running a little bit harder than our guys in the first half. God help me to run like those little guys during the National Anthem,” Ollie said.
On the flip side, UConn shot just 31 percent from the field, highlighted by poor offensive performances by Jalen Adams and Rodney Purvis, who scored only two and three points, respectively. Even though the Huskies were able to fight back from a 13-point deficit to bring the score to 36-34 by halftime, it was clear that the fatigue of having only six players for the last two games was taking a collective toll.
Vital, who had struggled early on with shot selection and efficiency, easily had the best performance on the floor in the first half, notching 10 points and five rebounds, sharing those stats with Brimah, who also collected four blocks. Facey, although going 3-for-7 from the field, was second on the team with eight points and six rebounds.
“With a lot of guys being out, we can’t remain the same; we can’t stay the same players we were before,” Facey said. “We just knew we had to punch back. They were coming at us from all angles, they were shooting the ball well, but we came out with a stronger defensive mindset [in the second half] and I think that helped us.”
Tulane came out of the gate charging in the second half, scoring seven straight points on a 7-2 run to balloon their lead to 43-36 just two minutes into the half. The Green Wave were able to take advantage of UConn’s poor baseline defense to kill any momentum that the Huskies built at any given time, preventing them from getting a stop and going on a run.
Much to the dismay of Tulane, however, an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Three straight buckets at the rim, including back-to-back dunks from both Adams and Brimah, suddenly had UConn and Tulane even at 50 points with just under 10 minutes to play.
“That was fun. It got loud in there. That was exciting for us to be able to give our hometown fans something to cheer about,” Facey said of the energy he felt following the dunks.
Both teams exchanged runs, with Tulane bouncing back with six straight points to reclaim their four-point lead with 7:57 to go. But after Brimah committed his fourth foul, leaving UConn with almost no room to wiggle, the Huskies exploded on an 17-0 run over the course of five minutes to all but seal the deal on the comeback.
“I’m glad we have older guys like Kentan, Amida, Purvis and an experienced guy like Jalen to help Vance and I out, and say ‘Listen, they made a run, but this is our home and we need this win,’” Vital said. “We were collectively able to play together, execute down the stretch, get stops.”
They ended the game on an overall 25-12 run, including seven straight points on free throws alone. UConn went 30-for-35 (87.5 percent) from the free throw line, easily one of their best performances of the season and a difference-maker.
Four UConn players finished the night in double digits: Facey had 20, Brimah had 18 and both Vital and Purvis netted 14. Facey compiled 12 rebounds to record his sixth double-double in his last 11 games, including his third in a row, and Vital notched his first double-double of his career with 10 rebounds. He had five assists as well.
“I’m very proud of him, you know, he’s just getting better and better. He’s getting some valuable minutes and he’s taking advantage of them, and that’s what you have to do as a freshman,” Ollie said of Vital. “He was making the same mistakes over and over again early, and as a freshman, you can’t do that. Now, he’s understanding our philosophies on the defensive end, he’s taking open shots, not contested shots.”
The Huskies will have a week to rest before they take on rival and conference-best Cincinnati on the road on Saturday, Feb. 4.