MEMPHIS— In 2016, UConn hit a record-setting 16 3-pointers against USF. Less than two weeks ago, they missed all 15 attempts against the Bulls. Today, they went 9-for-11 in the span of 12 minutes.
The Huskies ended up finishing 13-for-24 from behind the arc and rode big performances from its trio of guards to advance past USF, 80-73, in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
“I was just out there having fun with my teammates,” said Jalen Adams, who sunk three of the Huskies’ first four 3-pointers to start the incredible 9-for-11 run. “Especially when it’s just do or die and you see everything going in the hoop like that, it’s just a great feeling. You just build so much confidence. “
UConn (16-16, 6-12 The American) rode a 25-point performance from Christian Vital—who finished 6-for-9 from 3—a 19-point, six-rebound performance from Adams, a 14-point performance from Tarin Smith and a surprise 8-point performance from Isaiah Whaley.
The Huskies’ 66.7 percent performance from the floor and 9-for-14 performance from 3 in the first half are both American tournament single-half records.
Ironically, 80-73 is the score that UConn lost to SMU last year in the first round of the tournament. In that game, the Huskies looked like they would rather be doing anything than playing basketball. Today, they came ready to fight and had nothing else on their minds.
“I think the main difference is we’re not thinking about going back to Storrs right now,” Vital, who scored 24 points in last year’s first round loss, said. “We’re thinking about Houston, our next matchup, and going to the next round with a lot of confidence. We’re a group of guys who feel confident in not only themselves but each other. We’ve been through a lot this year and now it’s March, so now it’s time to just lay everything out on the line.”
“The team is so much more locked in,” Adams added. “We’re not worrying about other things, outside things. Everyone is just locked in to the team in front of us.”
UConn was locked in offensively from the start, choosing its shots carefully and making them count. The defense struggled to contain USF (19-13, 8-10 The American) in the paint, though, and the score was tight for the first eight minutes.
That’s when it started to rain in the FedEx Forum.
After hitting back-to-back 3s before the under-12 timeout, Adams hit another—his third in a row—and a Vital 3-pointer gave UConn a three-point lead. Then Vital hit two. And Smith hit another. And Vital went ahead and hit two more.
“I think the game is slowing down for me,” Vital said. “Coach has been putting an emphasis on… taking the right shot, I saw how my teammates, Jalen and Tarin—they were hot in the first half, so I didn’t want to take any extra shots where they could get one. When the shots came to me, I knew I could make them. I put ‘em up.”
UConn’s nine 3-pointers are a conference record for treys made in a half. A three-point deficit with 12 minutes to play rapidly turned into an 18-point lead with 5:21 to go as Vital hit four 3s in about five minutes.
Whaley, who averages 3.5 minutes per game, played a key role in building up that lead. When Josh Carlton got hit with two fouls in the first six minutes and Eric Cobb couldn’t get the job done, Whaley was up next.
“Coach told me early on, like days before, to be ready for the game,” Whaley said. “It feels good. I’ve been just sitting on the bench watching them, I’ve been wanting to get out there and help a lot. Just being able to contribute feels good.”
The Huskies entered the second half with a 39-26 lead and though their 3-point shooting tailed off (4-for-10), they continued to be hot from the floor.
That is, until UConn began to get hit with foul trouble. An 18-point lead with 6:38 to go suddenly dwindled down to a 73-68 lead after both Adams and Whaley fouled out. Poor free-throw shooting and a six-minute scoring drought certainly didn’t help.
But UConn was able to hang on, setting itself up for a dogfight with No. 1 Houston tomorrow at noon EST. The odds of pulling off an upset are unlikely; but, head coach Dan Hurley said, anything is possible with Jalen.
“To get Jalen back, you can obviously see the way offensively, in particular, the way things have changed,” Hurley said. “When you have a guy—a player of his caliber—on your team, and you have a guy shooting the ball the way Christian is, and some of the other pieces we have… we always got a chance. You got the most talented player in the conference on your team, you always got a chance.”
Stephanie Sheehan is the managing editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. She tweets @steph_sheehan.