If anyone is going to start a petition to have all home games played in Storrs, it’s Josh Carlton.
The splits between the XL Center and Gampel Pavilion are telling—Carlton averages 13 points per game in Storrs and has recorded six double-digit performances in eight games. In Hartford, he averages 8.6 points per game and has only scored in double-digits twice—17 points against New Hampshire and 20 against ECU.
But his 16-point, nine-rebound and three-assist performance against USF almost wasn’t enough to secure UConn’s 60-58 win over USF (18-11, 7-9 The American) Sunday afternoon. A hectic final 30 seconds nearly cost the Huskies (14-15, 5-11 The American) their first victory in a month.
“We were struggling to find guys who could score out there,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “That’s gonna be something we’re just gonna have to deal with. This is kind of our pathway to victory at this point with what we’re putting out there. We’ve got to play high-level defense, we gotta be gritty.”
Defense both saved and almost cost UConn the game. The Huskies were out-rebounded 46 to 33, allowed 20 offensive rebounds overall and committed late fouls that almost allowed USF to pull ahead.
It was a clutch shot by Gilbert that was able to save the Huskies. He’s hit his fair share of them over the course of the season, and Hurley couldn’t be happier about his performances down the stretch.
“I love to coach guys that play the best at the end of the game, like real ballers in the last six minutes,” Hurley said. “Those are the guys that have the clutch gene. I think Al’s got a little bit of that ‘it’ factor. He’s kind of the leader of this thing now with Jalen going down.”
UConn is now 8-0 at Gampel this season and has a chance to go undefeated in Storrs for the first time since 2008-09.
“It just feels like home,” Carlton said. “We just know we’re able to get a lot of shots up in here. We practice here. It’s really just home, you know, college feels, just always good to play at Gampel.”
“We love Gampel because of the atmosphere,” Gilbert added. “Undefeated here, it’s a better feeling. More like a college feel. We talk about it all the time. We love Gampel.”
With a near sellout crowd on the night UConn was retiring Ray Allen’s No. 34, Gilbert helped UConn got off to a hot start in tandem with Carlton’s dynamic performance—10 points and six rebounds in eight minutes—to fuel an early 12-2 run.
But a 17-8 lead apparently signaled to the Huskies that it was time to take their foot off the pedal, and USF responded with a 17-7 run of their own to recapture the lead at 25-24 with two minutes to play in the half.
If Carlton’s importance to the team’s offensive game wasn’t telling enough, UConn was outscored 12-2 by USF when he was subbed out for Eric Cobb in the home stretch of the first half.
Though they held a one-point advantage after 20 minutes, not even the presence of Ray Allen was enough to spark the offense—the Huskies shot 0-for-16 from 3-point range. That hasn’t happened since Nov. 27, 2009 against Duke.
“He took all of the 3-point shooting out of the building,” Carlton joked.
Right out of the gate in the second half, USF scored a quick two to put them up by a point. Carlton scored four early points and Polley tacked on a pair to bring their lead to 34-29 four minutes into the half. That was the last time Carlton would score for the rest of the game.
Gilbert, who had a 15-point game, scored five of the Huskies’ next 11 points as UConn built up a lead as high as seven points. But the Huskies struggled not only to score enough to build up a bigger lead, but a soft defensive effort, especially on the glass, kept allowing USF to inch closer.
“Part of it is not boxing out, part of it is that they’re an aggressive team on the boards,” Carlton said. “They had three, four guys on us. Give credit to them and their aggressiveness on the boards.”
Amid a five-minute scoring drought, the Bulls went on a 9-0 run to take a two-point lead with 6:11 to go. USF grabbed three offensive rebounds and drained a wide-open 3-pointer to cap off the run. UConn’s only four points for almost seven minutes came from free throws.
Tyler Polley finally broke the drought with a floater with just under three minutes to play, giving UConn a two-point edge. USF’s last six points came solely from free throws, opening up the door for UConn to steal a late victory.
Gilbert drove through traffic in the lane, hitting a floater to give UConn a one-point lead with 48 seconds to go. Tarin Smith came up huge on the next two possessions; he blocked a shot on USF’s next possession, drew a foul on offense and hit both his free throws to give the Huskies a three-point advantage with 30 seconds left.
That’s when it all started to fall apart. Vital fouled in the backcourt with 28 seconds on the clock, allowing USF to get an easy two and lose almost no time. Then USF fouled Vital on a double-team and he hit both free throws, giving UConn the lead again.
As USF scrambled to hit a miracle three, Wilson—who was already having a bad game—fouled David Collins beyond the arc and sent him to the line to shoot three. Collins missed a shot, though, and the Bulls fouled Gilbert for two shots with 2.4 seconds to go. After the refs spend several minutes checking the replay for little reason, Gilbert missed the first of two shots to set up USF for an epic game-ending shot.
But that never came to pass. USF’s inbound pass nearly went out-of-bounds, and Tarin Smith held the ball for the final moments. UConn will play Temple on Thursday for their final home game of the season.