The UConn men’s basketball team entered the in-season Charleston Classic tournament hoping to grab a win or two. But for a few brief moments in Friday’s semifinal against No. 18 Xavier, it looked like they could win the whole damn thing.
After an opening round win over Buffalo, fans got a thrilling preview of what the return to the Big East will look like. In a three-hour game that was equal parts marathon and rollercoaster, UConn (4-2) battled but fell heartbreakingly short of a second top-25 upset, falling 75-74 in double overtime to Xavier (6-1).
However, the Huskies bounced back in ferocious fashion, trouncing Miami in the third-place game, 80-55 on Sunday. Freshman James Bouknight, who made his UConn debut against Buffalo upon completing his three-game suspension, had 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and was the star all weekend for the Huskies. In just 50 minutes of play across three games, Bouknight had 40 points on an absurd 73% shooting.
“Our first game versus Buffalo I was scared,” Bouknight said. “But [head coach Dan Hurley] has just been talking to me and telling me how good I am. He instills a lot of confidence in me, and I know I can play so I just go out there and I just play, have fun and do what I do.”
Though the Huskies will certainly be happy with two-of-three on the weekend, they’ll undoubtedly wonder what could’ve been with a win over Xavier. UConn trailed by 10 at the half, then dominated the second half and appeared to be in control. But the Musketeers forced overtime, seemingly pulled away, before UConn somehow pulled back even. In double overtime, UConn had several attempts at a game-winner, but none fell.
“It just shows how good of a team we really are,” Bouknight told the media after the loss. “We put the country on notice. We had a chance to beat another top 20 team. It just shows we’re gritty and we’re going to go far, we’re not going to fold in the end … It’s just tough to play that well and lose.”
Playing in just his second game, Bouknight singlehandedly kept UConn afloat for stretches of the game, including a clutch three-point play to force double overtime. The freshman finished with a team-high 19 points on 6-of-10 shooting, though he also fouled out on a costly call in double overtime, which handed Xavier the two free throws which would ultimately be the difference.
“We see Bouknight every day in practice but you just can’t anticipate how, when the lights come on, the level that somebody’s going to perform at,” Hurley said. “That guy has a chance to be big-time.”
In a whistle-heavy second half, six different players fouled out and several others played through four fouls. Size was a significant issue for UConn, as Josh Carlton, who looked out of sorts in the paint all night, and Isaiah Whaley both fouled out and Akok Akok sat out most of the second half with leg cramps.
The difference, however, was the Huskies’ starting backcourt, which had another dreadful night. Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert went a combined 4-of-25 from the field. Their struggles were exemplified in the waning seconds of both overtimes.
In the first, Gilbert attacked but his layup was rejected. The ball settled in Vital’s hands, but his shot came milliseconds after the buzzer. In double overtime, Gilbert drove but lost his footing. Once again, the ball found Vital, but his shot was just short. After the game, Hurley defended those two plays,
“Al is the best option that we have currently on this team in terms of a guy that can beat somebody off the dribble and make a play in a situation like that,” Hurley said. “Al and Christian fell into some bad shot selection moments at different times, I didn’t think that instance was one of them. It looked to me like that was the right shot, that kid just made a heck of a block.”
The Xavier loss came on the heels of a solid victory over Buffalo (4-2) in the first round of the tournament on Thursday. A tie ballgame at the half, UConn took over in the second, thanks in large part for a career-day from Brendan Adams. The sophomore guard, who was forced to step in for Gilbert after an ankle injury, had 20 points on the bench, missing just one of his six shots and feasting at the free throw line, going 8-of-10 from the stripe.
“It’s definitely the real me that you’re seeing right now, and I’m going to keep improving,” Adams said. “Confidence is a big part of it.”
The Huskies ended the road trip on a high note, absolutely routing Miami (4-3) on Sunday to secure a third-place finish. Florida (5-2), which UConn defeated last week, took the tournament title home with a 70-65 victory over Xavier, handing the Musketeers their first loss of the season.
Behind an efficient 16 from Carlton and 14 from Vital, the Huskies outscored the Hurricanes 44-28 in the second half, dominating on both ends. Gilbert had a superb bounce-back game as a playmaker rather than a shot-taker, attempting only five shots while dishing out a game-high seven assists.
“That’s the leadership of Alterique Gilbert,” Hurley, who was outraged by the vicious social media response to Gilbert’s struggles on Friday, “He needed a pick-me-up from all of us. He’s got an army behind him and we all had to support him yesterday because he felt it. It was shameful and disgraceful that a college athlete had to deal with that. You’re a coward if you attacked the kid like that.”
With Gilbert’s continued difficulties finding his shot, Bouknight has immediately emerged as perhaps UConn’s best offensive weapon, even with just three minute-restricted games under his belt. Though a tournament win would’ve been preferred, it was an extremely encouraging weekend for the Huskies, and an exciting glimpse of the Big East atmosphere to come.
“I don’t think anyone’s had a week in college basketball like we’ve just had in terms of quality opponents,” Hurley said. “Florida on Sunday, Buffalo, the Xavier war, then Miami on the next Sunday. That’s a heck of a week. Obviously, we wish we went 4-0 this week but 3-1 versus that level of competition?”
UConn now gets a week-long reprieve, returning home to the XL Center on Dec. 1 to host Maine (2-3).