Not even a week ago the Huskies’ locker room was full of tears and hanging heads. Today, it was all smiles and gatorade cups.
The UConn men’s basketball team bounced back from a bad loss to St. Joseph’s last week with a resume-building, 62-59 win over the No. 15 Florida Gators in front of a sold-out crowd.
“That was a will-to-win type of game and our guys showed incredible will today,” head coach Dan Hurley said.
At the forefront of the effort was Christian Vital, who finished the day with 15 points on 4-of-9 shooting along with four rebounds and five assists. While it may not have been the prettiest of games, like a 4-for-22 team mark from deep or a 36% shooting percentage from the floor, Sunday’s win required a full-team effort.
“Team. Team,” Vital said. “Just team, just thinking about the team. We all fought, everyone stepped up today. If one person didn’t do something that they did today, I don’t think we win this game. Team is the word I got.”
Tyler Polley seemed to find his groove in the win, finishing with 15 points while making three of his eight shots from beyond the arc. He scored eight straight in the second half to give UConn (2-1) a 35-29 lead. The Huskies spent 27 minutes and 31 seconds in the lead.
Off the bench, it was all Isaiah Whaley. He scored seven of the Huskies’ nine bench points and added six boards. Brendan Adams was scoreless in his 10 minutes while Sid Wilson had the only other bench bucket, but only played seven minutes.
Polley was the first player to score for UConn. The Huskies turned over five times in their first eight possessions, letting Florida take an early 6-0 lead. Polley’s put back let the UConn faithful finally take a seat after nearly five minutes of action.
UConn caught fire from there, scoring another nine in a row after Polley’s bucket. Playing with energy, defensive tenacity and a sense of urgency, the Huskies took a 25-20 lead into the locker room at the half.
“We did a really good job defensively,” Hurley said. “Guys followed the game plan to a T. Ball screen defense got away from us a little bit… We just got after it. Thought we played really, really hard.”
Florida (2-2) came out and got two quick buckets, including a Kerry Blackshear Jr. jumper, to open the second half. Blackshear finished the day atop the Gators’ stat sheet with 15 points and eight rebounds. He spent most of the afternoon in foul trouble and the Huskies were able to fully take control once he fouled out with 4:37 left.
The Gators shot 40% from the field and made 25% of their threes. They were out-rebounded by not just one, but 13 turnovers, and seven UConn steals did not help their cause.
Alterique Gilbert, who made just 3 of his 13 shots, managed to hang a floater on the rim before it dropped in late in the second half. He assisted on a Josh Carlton transition bucket, one of four fast-break buckets for UConn.
“It was all about response,” Gilbert. “Obviously it was a bad loss for us, but we knew everything that we did wrong immediately. We knew how to fix it. We didn’t panic. We went back to practice and worked hard.”
With just seconds on the clock and the Huskies up by one, Akok Akok came down with the biggest rebound out of his eight on the day. He quickly got the ball to Vital and the senior guard nailed both free throws to ice the game, eerily similar to his game-winning free throws in his freshman year against Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.
Vital and Gilbert combined to make the game-ending play. Gilbert tipped a pass and Vital snatched it up for his second steal of the game as the crowd grew even louder. A very different ending than last Wednesday night.
“You can have a bad night, you’re going to have bad nights, but it’s how you respond,” Vital said. “And the good thing about sports is you get a chance to recover, to prove yourself, to know that last game was a fluke.”
“Without the crowd, we wouldn’t have won it,” Gilbert added, who finished with 10 points and four assists.
This was a statement win for a program that is still trying to figure out what exactly their identity is. Beating a team who entered the season as the sixth-ranked program in the country is as good a place to start as any.
“Life happens for you, not to you,” Hurley said. “If you’re self aware, look in the mirror and instead of blaming, complaining and defending, and if you just get back in the fight, fix the things you failed at, you learn from it. Like in life, in sports, there’s always another opportunity.”
The Huskies next opportunity will come at the Charleston Classic where they’ll take on Buffalo first.