Closing out 2019 the right way 😤
— UConn Men’s Basketball (@UConnMBB) December 29, 2019
Defense wins championships, as the saying goes. Though the UConn Huskies are a ways away from competing for a title, they closed out the decade with a victory and a firmly established identity.
In the 41-23 win over the New Jersey Institute of Technology, the first meeting between the schools, UConn demonstrated its defensive prowess in front of 10,507 fans at the XL Center, while Christian Vital took care of most of the offense.
Vital led all scorers with a season-high 27 points, three shy of tying his career best, and made 5-of-8 from beyond the arc. He had two thirds of the team’s steals (4-of-6) in the Huskies’ (9-3) last game before conference play begins.
“Our defense is really good,” Vital said, whose 2.55 steals per game is near the nation’s top-10. “I think we have a really good team defensively and we have each other’s backs out there as well.
Zach Cooks, NJIT’s junior point guard, entered the day as the nation’s sixth best scorer, averaging 23.1 points per game. Mostly guarded by Alterique Gilbert Sunday afternoon, Cooks finished with 12 points, with half coming late in the game after Gilbert checked out. The Highlanders never held the lead, they did not score more than six points in a row and were held to a 32.7% mark from the floor.
“We let him get loose a little bit late, he picked up some lazy buckets on our part,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “But Al did a great job.”
With the help of Akok Akok’s five swats, the Huskies eclipsed double-digit blocks for the second time on the three-game homestand. The redshirt freshman also posted a new-career high in rebounds with 10.
“I love Akok,” Vital said. “Me being a senior, seeing that young, freshman dude running around just having fun and everything. It reminds you of why you want to play basketball, to have fun with it. I appreciate Akok.”
Akok made his presence felt early. He scored five of the first seven UConn points and added pairs of blocks and rebounds before the seven-minute mark. The Huskies built a 12-4 lead to quickly overshadow New Haven’s Byron Breeland III’s homecoming, who scored the first basket for the Highlanders (3-9), but not much else.
Vital and Tyler Polley alternated made 3-pointers to help UConn build a 17 point lead. Though the Huskies shot 44% from deep (11-of-25), NJIT put together a 6-0 run that was enough for Hurley to call a timeout.
Out of the timeout, Vital picked the ball handler’s pocket and slammed it home on the other end. He followed it with a three on the next possession before James Bouknight converted a Jalen Gaffney pass for a 3-pointer to give the Huskies a 35-20 lead after 20 minutes. Gaffney, who finished with a career-high seven assists, had five in the first half.
NJIT’s Souleymane Diakite finished tied for the team-high mark in points (12) while his 11 rebounds were the most on either side.
UConn broke the game wide open in the opening moments of the second half, conducting a 14-3 run over the first six minutes and 12 seconds. Brendan Adams capped off the run with five-straight points via a transition dunk and 3-pointer. He was the only other Husky to reach double digit points with 12.
Halfway through the second half, with the game well in-hand, a “We want Garry” chant erupted from section 123, calling for walk-on Matt Garry, a Southington native, to get put in the game. He’d enter, though not until the 2:34 mark. He tried to make the most of his limited minutes, driving to the hoop twice and going to the free-throw line each time, but failed to convert all four attempts.
“[The fans] didn’t help his cause with that,” Hurley said, “because then, at the free-throw line, he had no shot. He was hyperventilating… I just feel bad that he wasn’t able to make a couple because he’s a great kid and a good player.”
Next on the agenda: conference play. The Huskies travel for four of the first six AAC matchups, including their Jan. 1 bout with Cincinnati. Hurley feels confident in his team as they’ve transformed themselves from this time a season ago.
“We’ve been a very tough-minded, competitive, determined team,” Hurley said. “I just think we’ve come a long way as a program in terms of how we show up, how we compete. Obviously the defense end is like night and day compared to last year. I think everyone is better version of themselves.”
“I’m nervous, I’m not scared. Last year I was scared.”