It wasn’t pretty, but it was an electrifying win for the UConn basketball team against No. 15 Florida on Sunday in front of a rocking Gampel crowd. As ugly as it was at times, it was a beautiful rebound from one of the worst losses in recent memory.
It’s hard to believe that Sunday’s game was played in the same building as Wednesday’s devastating loss to Saint Joseph’s. After Wednesday’s final buzzer, the players quickly exited the floor, heads hung low. The sparse crowd, which had been silent nearly all game, quietly filed out. In his postgame interview, head coach Dan Hurley was at a loss for words, stunned by his team’s performance.
Fast forward to Sunday. Hurley and the team took the scenic route to the locker room, high-fiving the front row of the student section first. The sold-out crowd, though no longer shaking the building, still buzzed with energy. The team’s joyful shouting echoed through the Gampel tunnels. Hurley’s first words in his press conference were a joke, and the smile never left his face.
It was an astounding turnaround, from an unimaginably bad loss to the first win over a ranked opponent at Gampel since 2013. From the upsettee to the upsetter. Postgame, it was two entirely different locker rooms.
“There was liquid in both locker rooms — Wednesday it was tears, and today it was Gatorade cups on my head,” Hurley said. “It was crying the other day, it was like a morgue. You walked in there, it was like some of the worst moments we’ve ever had in life, literally. You felt like someone ripped your guts out, and in front of a lot of people on TV and in person.”
Hurley said that the victory over Florida was won before the team even arrived in Gampel on Sunday. Rather, it was a product of the team collectively taking responsibility following a crushing defeat.
“Life happens for you, not to you,” Hurley said. “If you stay in there, if you’re self-aware and look in the mirror and instead of blaming, complaining and defending, you get back in the fight, fix the things that you failed at and learn from it. In life and in sports, there’s always another opportunity for you.”
Things didn’t start off well for the Huskies on Sunday. Just as against Saint Joseph’s, the team went the first five minutes of the game without making a shot. But while that slow start, paired with some excellent sharpshooting from the Hawks, buried UConn on Wednesday, the Huskies didn’t go down as easily. Once the cover finally came off the rim, UConn went on an 11-0 run to seize the lead — a lead it would cling to for nearly the entirety of the remainder.
UConn once again struggled offensively for most of the night, shooting 35% from the floor. But unlike Wednesday, the Huskies were absolutely locked in on the defensive end, forcing several shot clock violations as the Gators never looked remotely comfortable. Alterique Gilbert, Christian Vital and Tyler Polley all had multi-steal games.
“We just played really, really hard,” Hurley said. “That was a physical game, you can take shooting efficiency and percentages out. That was just a will-to-win kind of the game, and our guys showed an incredible will today.”
It seems that UConn is plenty comfortable playing in these kind of physical, ugly, defensive-minded games, and Gilbert exemplified that most on Sunday. The redshirt junior, whose shooting struggles continued, had a rough night efficiency-wise, shooting just 3-of-13, missing all six of his 3-pointers.
But Gilbert was flying around on defense all night, racking up three steals. And when UConn needed him most offensively, he came through in the clutch. With 1:27 remaining and the Huskies up by a single point, Gilbert drilled an ice-cold stepback, causing the Gampel crowd to erupt.
“It was just all about response,” Gilbert said on the mindset leading up to the Florida game. “Obviously it was a bad loss for us, but we knew everything that we did wrong immediately, and we knew how to fix it. So we didn’t panic, just went back to practice and worked hard.”
On Wednesday, it seemed that players, coaches and fans couldn’t exit Gampel fast enough. On Sunday, after a season-defining victory, the team, like the excitement in the air, lingered long after the final fans filed out.