All UConn fans wanted for Christmas was a win against the University of New Hampshire Sunday, and boy did Hurley’s guys answer. After a rocky first half, the Huskies put together an incredible team effort in the second to walk away with an 88-62 victory, sending the fans and players home happy for the holidays.
The first half was full of runs for both sides. A couple of 8-0 stretches for UNH saw them with a 18-9 lead early on, but a quick response by freshmen James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney found the Huskies (8-3) on a 13-0 run of their own, giving them a 24-18 lead, one they would not relinquish.
“They did a great job,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “I think they were a little shaky when they first got in, but James was obviously really good, and you see Gaffney starting to figure some things out out there. Everyone gave us stuff today.”
The Wildcats (6-6) kept it close in the first with their impressive 3-point shooting, and when halftime struck, the Huskies only held a four-point lead. But whatever Hurley told his players in the locker room clicked, and when the ball was inbounded to start the second, it was like their heart had grown 3 sizes.
After freshman phenom Akok Akok hit his first 3-pointer of the day to open the scoring, Alterique Gilbert took over for the Huskies. The senior went on an 11-3 run on his own, carrying UConn to their first double-digit lead of the game and never looking back. After a tough start to this season offensively, Gilbert said he may have found the key to his success in this weekend’s contest.
“Getting a flow of the game starting with my defense definitely woke me up and took the pressure off offensively… I just think it’s a mindset,” Gilbert said. “Just blocking everything and knowing why you’re here. I play the game to have fun because I have fun with it and I really enjoyed tonight.”.
Gilbert would end the game with 21 points, just one shy of his season-high, along with two assists and three steals. He wasn’t the only one handling the load, though, as it appeared a spark was lit under the whole team after their disappointing start. Christian Vital continued his dominance, racking up 15 points and seven rebounds to help in the win, but it was the play of Bouknight and Gaffney off the bench that really stood out, particularly in the second.
After combining for 10 points in his last three outings combined, Bouknight found his stroke again, putting up 14 points on 4-7 shooting while adding a career-best seven rebounds and rejecting his first shot in emphatic fashion. Meanwhile Gaffney, who burst onto the scene after putting up 10 points and five assists last time out against St. Peter’s, had another strong game, adding eight more points and a team-leading five assists to his totals. If these two can continue to piece together performances like this, this UConn team will look a lot scarier.
“It’s a big push for our team, especially when Jalen comes in the game,” Gilbert said. “He gets into every game in different ways [and] James’ scoring, rebounding ability is great. I think we’ve still gotta get a little better defensively in spots, but I like the momentum we have right now.”
By the time the final buzzer sounded UConn held a commanding 88-62 lead headlined by a season-best field goal percentage (54.5), just 10 turnovers (this after coughing up the ball 48 times in the past two games) and impressive play from their young guys and, more importantly, their seniors.
“If we’re gonna have a surprise season and compete for an NCAA or NIT thing, those two guys [Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital] have to play close to or at an All-Conference level and I think they both played like All-Conference level guards today and we looked like a good team.” Hurley said. “When they play like that everyone else settles in.”
The Huskies will get the next few days off before they head back to the XL Center to take on NJIT Dec. 29th, their final game before conference play kicks off along with the new year.