It took three games to secure it, but the UConn men’s basketball team finally has its first conference win of the season, a 67-61 victory over Tulane at Gampel Pavilion on Wednesday night.
— UConn Men’s Basketball (@UConnMBB) January 9, 2020
The victory ended a two-game slide for the Huskies, who entered 7-0 all-time against Tulane. That history, plus playing at home, created what felt like a must-win atmosphere for UConn.
“You gotta draw a line in the sand right now, and you gotta respond,” head coach Dan Hurley said on his message to the team. “I was happy that we were able to get back to our identity as a team, playing good defense and showing toughness.”
The Huskies (10-5, 1-2 The American), despite going with a small lineup for most of the second half, absolutely dominated the glass down the stretch, beating Tulane to seemingly every loose ball. Tyler Polley was everywhere, recording his first career double-double with 19 points and 11 boards, including six of UConn’s 18 offensive rebounds.
“Tyler was not good in Cincinnati and South Florida, and today he was tremendous and tough,” Hurley said after the game. “He looked in the mirror, and he could’ve continued to spiral, or he could’ve, like a number of our players, stood up and fought today.”
After some recent offensive struggles, the veteran backcourt duo of Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert also came alive on Wednesday. Vital had 18 points and eight boards, while Gilbert totaled 11 points and seven assists.
“I thought Al was a lot more patient,” Hurley said. “He found guys at the end of the shot clock, where earlier in the year he might’ve dribbled himself into a bad position. He just kept his poise and waited for the defense to make a mistake.”
Hurley revealed after the game that Gilbert’s grandmother, Linda Epps, passed away on Tuesday, just a day before the game. Hurley insisted that Gilbert take some time off, but the redshirt junior was intent on playing.
“I had a conversation with my mom and my family this morning, and everybody was in good spirits, and I just felt it was good for me to play,” Gilbert said after the game. “It was an opportunity for me to free my mind.”
Gilbert and Polley did the heavy lifting later, but it was the Josh Carlton show at the start of the Wednesday’s game. After scoring four points in the previous two games combined, the junior center scored six of UConn’s first 11 points. He ultimately played just 18 minutes as the Huskies went small, but finished with an efficient 10 points, four rebounds and a couple of blocks.
A couple of 7-0 runs by Tulane (9-6, 1-2 The American) kept things close for much of the first half, but the Huskies gradually extended their lead. Gilbert beat the buzzer with an improbable layup to give UConn a 36-29 advantage at the half.
The Huskies never trailed in the second half, but never quite pulled away either. Even though his 3-point shot was off all night, it was Polley time and time again who crashed the glass or nailed a big shot in the paint. He had 10 points and four offensive boards in the second half alone, resisting his tendency at times to become solely a spot-up 3-point shooter.
“Teams know I can shoot, so I have to do other things to affect the game, and that’s what I tried to do tonight,” Polley said. “I tried to just do more — do more on the defensive end, crash when other people shoot, create opportunities for my teammates.”
It was a crucial win for UConn, but the team was cautious of overstating its importance. When asked about the importance of stopping the snowball after two straight losses to open conference play, Hurley admitted that “it’s still a snowball — I don’t know how high on the hill it is, but it’s still there. We’ve still got a lot of work to do.”
UConn is back in action on Sunday with the difficult task of welcoming No. 23 Wichita State (13-1, 1-0 The American) to the XL Center.
Photos by Eric Wang / The Daily Campus