The UConn men’s basketball team used strong defensive play to grind out a 62-53 win over American Athletic Conference rival UCF at Gampel Pavilion Wednesday.
With balanced scoring from Christian Vital, Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier, and a very impressive effort in the frontcourt from freshmen Isaiah Whaley and Josh Carlton against 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, the Huskies (9-7, 2-2 The American) won their second straight game before heading out on the road this weekend.
“I thought we came out with some passion and some fire,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said after the game. “We executed down the stretch defensively and offensively, and we were able to come out with a huge win. UCF is praying incredible, and I’m just proud of our guys that we followed the plan and executed tonight.”
Whaley had a significant effort on the outcome. The 6-foot-8 forward from Mount Zion Prep posted five blocks and six rebounds (four offensive) in 20 minutes of play, and stood tall at the rim on multiple occasions.
“It was phenomenal,” Ollie said of Whaley’s defensive effort. “He keeps blossoming in front of our eyes, and doing all the small things, and I just want him to continue that.”
Wednesday’s conflict wasn’t limited to the court. Vital got into it with UCF players before and after the game, and he was visibly fiery after being slammed to the ground by Dayon Griffin on a breakaway dunk attempt in the first half. A flagrant-one foul was called.
“Fake energy from the other team,” Vital said. “Just trying to get us out of our game.”
Ollie believed UCF was partly to blame for the various extracurricular scuffles.
“We definitely want to keep it in check, we don’t want anyone suspended from our team,” Ollie said. “But, the other team can’t be the instigator also. A couple times [tonight], the other team was the instigator, and we were just protecting ourselves.”
The Huskies started the game with a lay-up from Josh Carlton and got off to a hot defensive start right from the tip, as the Knights missed their first four shots. UConn wasn’t able to build much of a lead due to turnover troubles from Larrier and Adams.
UCF shot just 33 percent from the field in the first half, but a 6-0 run in the closing minutes had them within one point before the Huskies closed with eight straight points. Adams capped the action with a drive and a pass to the corner for a Larrier 3-pointer, after which he pumped the students in attendance at Gampel Pavilion.
UConn scored the first five points of the second half, extending their run to 13-0 and building a 35-21 advantage. However, the Knights punched right back with a 14-2 run of their own to cut the lead to one point
“A lot of times, when we have a lead, we start getting complacent, we start getting comfortable. That’s when our leads start going away. It’s all mental, actually. We’re getting better at it, though,” Whaley said.
Whaley helped to put the Huskies comfortably ahead with effort on both ends of the floor, teaming with Carlton to duel Fall in the paint.
Adams hit the dagger with 4:03 remaining, a fadeaway jumper to eclipse the 1,000-point mark in his UConn career and put the Huskies up 10.
“It’s a big moment for me, and I’m just happy I can do it here at UConn,” Adams said of his accomplishment. “Luckily, I scored the basketball at the right time when we needed a huge bucket.”
Vital led the team with 18 points (plus seven rebounds and four steals), while Adams and Larrier added 13 each. The Huskies shot 20-for-21 from the free throw line (95 percent).
UConn returns to action Saturday when they travel to face upstart Tulane in New Orleans.