There are a number of words to describe a double-overtime loss to a conference rival.
But for a program in the second year of a rebuild, if you’re going to lose, this is how it should look.
“Year two should be losses like this to quality teams or losses like this that you compete your butt of, but you’re just not quite good enough yet, or you win,” head coach Dan Hurley said following the 89-86, double-overtime loss. “Not performances we had on the road last week.”
Hurely said the performance re-established the team’s “identity of toughness,” after a roadtrip marred by two double-digit losses. Coming back from a 12-point deficit in the first half? Tough. Scoring nine points in the final 1:05 in regulation to force overtime? Tough.
Seeing a game-tying shot rim out as the clock expires? That’s heartbreaking.
“I thought it was going to drop,” Vital said after watching his last-second effort fall short. “It was just tough. We fought. We fought for that. Some moments didn’t go our way, when we thought it would or should’ve gone our way, but it was just tough because we knew we fought for that. We didn’t just let them come in here and think they were going to bully us. It was tough to end that game and not be on the winning side.”
This was not the first time Vital, who had a game-high 25 points, has felt this way after a loss in his careeer, or even this season. The Huskies (10-6, 1-3 The American) lost to a ranked Xavier team in two overtimes in Charleston as well, before a three-point loss to Indiana at Madison Square Garden in early December.
“This was the type of performance, getting to our identity of toughness, defensive toughness, game toughness, that you rebuild championship-level programs with,” Hurley said. “And when all the other stuff catches up, you find yourself back towards the top of the mountain.
The 23-ranked Shockers entered the XL Center winners of eight-straight games and sat atop the American Athletic Conference. After turing the ball over via a shot clock violation with 10.6 to play, Wichita State saw its ninth win in a row fleeting. Alterique Gilbert then found an open Sidney Wilson in the left corner, who tied the game with his first three-pointer of the season.
“I had no time to think about it,” Wilson said, after bringing a rambucious, 13,281-person crowd to its feet. “As soon as I caught it, I made sure I was behind the 3-point line and I shot it.”
Wilson, who had fallen out of the rotation of late, was a key cog in Sunday’s game with 12 points, five rebounds and two blocks – a product of hard work during practice. At the end of the first half, he turned the ball over, blocked the shot on the other end before playing clean-up crew on a missed lob to Josh Calrton. The Huskies went into halftime trailing 35-30.
Like Hurely said, the defense was “tough” and on point in multiple facets: on the ball, in the halfcourt and even in the full-court press. UConn forced 21 turnovers, though they turned the ball over 19 times themselves, and Vital had half (5) of the team’s steals (10). The Shockers hit tough shot after tough shot en route to a 54% mark from the floor in the first. Some Hurley halftime adjustments cooled off Wichita State to 32%.
UConn struggled with free throws throughout the game. The Huskies missed five shots from the line after regulation and went 29-of-42 overall, shooting nearly double the amount of free throws as the Shockers (24), who made 19. Though he hit the tying free throw to force the second extra period, Josh Carlton – who scored 13 with a game-high 12 rebounds – went 7-of-13 from the stripe.
For the Shockers (15-1, 3-0 The American), Erik Stevenson was 6-for-6 from the line and had 16 points while Jaime Echenique had team-highs in points (19) and rebounds (8). Both fouled out in overtime. Tyson Etienne and Grant Sherfield combined for nine points in the second overtime period to secure the win.
For the first time all season, the Huskies sent out a different starting five. Just hours before tip-off, UConn announced Tyler Polley would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, an injury he suffered on a jump-stop in practice the day prior. In his place, alongside the other normal four starters, was freshman guard James Bouknight.
The rookie played a lot of the game in foul trouble, but was relentess in both overtime periods. He scored half of his 16 points after regulation, including a stretch of six straight.
“He’s going to be unleashed here,” Hurley said of his newest starter.
Gilbert was the other Husky to reach double digits, scoring 14 with six rebounds, while turning the ball over five times.
“I think we have our identity,” Vital said. “I think we know what it is, and we’re going to ride with it for the rest of the season. We’re going to keep waking up every day and we’re going to keep fighting.”
The Huskies will be tested again the next time they take the court, and the time after that as well. In a week, UConn plays No. 16 Villanova on the road before a trip to Houston to take on the Cougars.