Playing in his final home opener in a UConn uniform, senior Christian Vital wanted nothing more than to begin his final season on a high note. Instead, it’s hard to imagine a worse first half for the senior guard.
Vital had more turnovers (three) than points (two), and did not make a shot from the field. He picked up a technical four not even four minutes in after a scuffle with Sacred Heart’s Zach Pfaffenberger. He attempted just two shots, and by the end of the half, he seemed to have abandoned looking for his offense altogether.
After the game, Vital said that his first half mindset was to feed the younger members of the team. Despite his struggles, he was confident that he and fellow veteran Alterique Gilbert could turn it on when needed.
“Al and I weren’t too aggressive, we wanted to see what other guys we’re going to do because we’ve been telling them to shoot,” Vital said. “We just wanted to make sure other guys were confident; we knew we could go and score, but to see Sid, Brendan—I’m really proud of those guys for stepping up and being confident.”
Gilbert, who finished with six points on 2-of-9 shooting, never got it going. Instead, it was on Vital to play the catalyst. He did that and then some, bringing an energy out of the half that had been sorely lacking in the first. In his postgame presser, Hurley echoed his concerns all offseason that his team tends to lack the “killer mentality” that he expects from his teams, with the exception of Vital.
“These guys gotta adopt that fire — I’m a fiery guy, Christian’s a fiery guy. But that’s gonna run through the veins of the entire team,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Christian almost looks like an outlier out there at times, with his passion, competitiveness, aggression. We need more of that from everyone across the board.”
With UConn leading by nine early in the second half, Vital put together a highlight reel sequence that felt like the Huskies finally flexing their muscles against the smaller program. First, Gilbert found Vital in the corner and the senior drilled it a 3.
Trying to answer, the Pioneers pushed the tempo, heaving a pass down the court. Vital, who had hustled back after his 3, played deep safety, coming out of nowhere to intercept the pass. That sparked a fast break, and though Gilbert’s 3 didn’t fall, Tyler Polley grabbed the offensive board and found Vital in the opposite corner, who knocked down a second-straight 3 to push UConn’s lead to 15.
Vital was everywhere on defense, racking up a career-high seven steals. He used his defense to kickstart his offense, scoring 15 points in the second half alone. After missing his only two field goals in the first half, Vital went 6-for-7, including 3-of-3 from deep, in the second.
Following a first half in which the Huskies were outrebounded 28-13 in the first half, Vital took it upon himself to crash the glass. He’s always been known as a strong rebounding guard, and he pulled down more boards in the second (six) than any other player.
Vital has often been characterized as a player whose decision-making can be a ceiling on his talent; someone who can make an outstanding play in one moment and an infuriating one in the next. On Friday, Hurley talked about the frustration, and pride, of coaching that kind of player, seeing a little of himself in the senior guard.
“With Christian, 85% you love everything he brings, 15% is where we butt heads,” Hurley said. “Hopefully we get to 12% by December, 10% by January…I wish the team would take on his personality, the toughness, the self-belief. That’s gotta run through the team, we need to have a collective swagger about us that players at UConn should have.”
Last season, senior Jalen Adams built a close relationship with his head coach, even sending a text to Hurley the morning of a crucial game, assuring his coach that the team would battle like soldiers in war. Now, it seems Vital is trying to embrace that role.
“We didn’t get off to the best of starts,” Vital admitted on his relationship with Hurley. “We had some tough losses, we had to find ourselves. But like he said, like I’ve said, we’re on a better page. We’re not perfect, I’m not perfect, there’s no perfect person out there. We’re just learning each other still, I understand a lot more what he expects from me, he understands the type of player I am, and we’re continuing to gel.”
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that it’s Vital — the most confident, emotional player on the team — who conflicts most with his head coach, someone who shares many of those same traits.
“People say we’re kinda the same person,” Vital continued. “So we’re gonna have our moments, but I think we’re gonna have a lot more great moments than struggling moments this year.”