When Alterique Gilbert drilled a 3-point bomb from the logo to tie the game with six seconds to go, it seemed like the makings of a perfect redemption story. Last month, when the Huskies defeated Wichita State by 20, Gilbert was not part of the celebrations. His night had been cut short after suffering a scary shoulder injury which would force him to miss the next five games.
Fast-forward to Thursday. With UConn trailing by six with under a minute to play, Gilbert, who limped through leg cramps for much of the night, took over from there. He knocked down back-to-back deep 3s, the second of which could’ve easily been an and-one, to tie things up. If UConn could force overtime and win, it would be an unforgettable victory for Gilbert and the Huskies.
“He gives so much of himself to the cause, it means so much to him. He empties the tank to the point where he’s getting full leg cramps,” head coach Dan Hurley said about Gilbert after the game. “That’s what the leader of your program should look like at the end of the game, playing himself through exhaustion. That obviously gives us tremendous hope because he’s the face of what we’re trying to build here.”
That comeback story, however, promptly met a heart-wrenching demise. On the next possession, Wichita’s Samajae Haynes-Jones got right down the court, lofting up an impossible runner with his left hand while falling out of bounds to his right. It rattled around the rim and, as time expired, somehow went in, handing UConn a 65-63 loss on Thursday night.
“The trick to developing a program as good as Wichita State has been…is to recruit, develop, nurture 13 guys that have that kind of heart,” Hurley continued on Gilbert. “If we can get everyone in the program to follow his lead, we’ll be in great shape in short order. These games very quickly next year will have a much different feel.”
In an ugly game where both teams struggled to run offense throughout, Gilbert was UConn’s top scorer with 18 points on 6-of-16 shooting and four assists. Josh Carlton added 10 points and five rebounds, and freshman Brendan Adams had nine points off the bench.
“At a critical time in the game, I really wanted to be there for my team,” Gilbert said in response to being hobbled by cramps throughout the second half. “It was still cramping but I was able to play so I was good at that point.”
UConn (13-15, 4-11 The American) did something on Thursday it’s struggled to do all year: start the second half strong. Leading by five at the break, the Huskies came out fast in the second, building a 37-27 lead with 16:49 to play, their largest of the game.
The Shockers (14-13, 7-8 The American) answered with a 12-3 run of their own and it was back-and-forth the rest of the way before Haynes-Jones, who led all scorers with 20, delivered the dagger. It marked the 300th victory at Wichita State for head coach Gregg Marshall, who is largely responsible for building the program for what it is today, even in a down year like this one.
For the Huskies, things have gone from bad to worse. The team has now lost six straight games, the program’s longest losing streak in almost 30 years, and has still yet to come away with a win in a true road game, now 0-8 in those contests. If the four-point loss to Cincinnati on Sunday felt like a punch in the gut, this one feels like the nail in the coffin.
Apart from Gilbert, the other bright spot for UConn was guard Brendan Adams. The freshman struggled mightily with his 3-point stroke earlier in the season, at one point missing eight straight 3s over the course of six games. Since then, however, Adams has gone 5-of-10 from beyond the arc, including 3-of-5 on Thursday. If he can develop into a knockdown outside shooter, he’ll be a big piece for years to come in Dan Hurley’s system.
With three games remaining in the regular season, UConn will now have to run the table to avoid a second-straight sub-.500 season. That starts with USF on Sunday at Gampel Pavilion. While anything can happen in the conference tournament, it seems the coffin may already be sealed.