Men’s Basketball: Without Polley, it’s Wilson (nearly) to the rescue

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UConn took a heart wrenching defeat to Wichita State after double overtime with a final score of 89-86. Sidney Wilson (15) made a three-pointer last second at the end of the 2nd Half tying with a score of 69-69. However, the Huskies could not do the same towards the end of the 2nd overtime. Photos by Eric Wang/The Daily Campus

Just hours before tip against red-hot No. 23 Wichita State, the UConn men’s basketball team was dealt devastating news: junior Tyler Polley will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL suffered in practice on Friday.

Polley, coming off his first career double-double and one of his best performances in a UConn uniform, is a huge loss for a team still searching for its identity. The team’s third-leading scorer and the best pure shooter on the team, Polley is critical to the Huskies’ floor spacing. UConn was already struggling to find offensive rhythm — what now?

“Losing Tyler really hurts,” head coach Dan Hurley said on Sunday. “He’s clearly our best shooter, and at 6-foot-8, being able to play him at guard at that length helps defensively … You lose a key guy at two spots. It obviously gives these younger guys a chance to play more.”

The door has been thrust open for other players to replace Polley’s production, and as heart-wrenching a loss as Sunday’s game was, it certainly was an encouraging performance without Polley in the fold.

Freshman James Bouknight got his first career start in Polley’s place, the first time that Hurley has tweaked the starting lineup all season. Though Bouknight had a brilliant overtime, he showed his inexperience at times, turning it over three times and committing some costly fouls.

Bouknight is arguably the Huskies’ most talented player, and has done more than anyone else off the bench this season to earn that fifth starting spot. But, as was evident on Sunday, he’s also just a freshman, and listed at five inches shorter than Polley, could struggle to defend opposing forwards. 

Sophomore Brendan Adams will almost certainly see some added minutes, and has been impressive on the defensive end in his second year. But with just zero points in the last two games combined, BA has yet to prove he can provide consistent scoring. So when Bouknight and Adams don’t have it, who does Hurley turn to?

Enter Sid.

“Today, we were playing for Tyler,” Sidney Wilson said after the game. “He went down, he’s a good kid and we were really hurting. I knew I had to step up.”

In his second season, Wilson had seen his minutes wane to essentially zero, as he did not play in two of UConn’s previous three games entering Sunday. But against the Shockers, Wilson turned in his most memorable performance as a Husky, bringing UConn heartbreakingly close to a stunning upset.

Wilson was the spark plug, registering 12 loud points and two even louder blocks before fouling out in the first overtime of Sunday’s contest. He had an unbelievable sequence at the end of the first half, setting the scene for what would occur at the end of regulation. In the final moments before halftime, Wilson turned it over, but sprinted back and swatted Wichita’s layup attempt with authority, then hustled down the court and threw down a vicious putback slam.

It was an electrifying play, but it turned out to be just the appetizer. UConn, trailing by nine with a minute remaining in regulation, clawed back to make it a three-point deficit with 10 seconds to play. And with the game hanging in the balance, the ball found an unlikely hero wide open in the corner: Wilson.

“I didn’t really expect to get the ball, we had set up a play for someone else but it just happened to be in my hands and I made the shot,” Wilson said.

Wilson, who hadn’t made a 3-pointer all season before that shot, drained the shot with just 1.6 seconds remaining to tie the game. The XL Center erupted, as did his teammates on the bench.

“I was jumping at him, I was screaming at him, I was so happy for him,” Bouknight said on his reaction to that game-tying shot. “He’s just gotta build on that, make Coach play him.”

And he wasn’t done. Wilson blocked the Shockers’ attempt on the other end to force overtime. After watching his spot in the rotation practically disappear altogether, Wilson had brought UConn back from the dead.

“That’s my brother, that’s my roommate,” Christian Vital said. “I just told him, ‘Stay with it, it can’t rain forever.’ I’ve gone through these years of tough losses, and it can’t rain forever. When it stops, it’s your time to shine, and [Wilson] definitely brought it today.”

Had UConn gone on to win the game, that game-tying 3 would live on in history. Unfortunately, Wichita State — along with missed free throws and questionable officiating — had other plans. Wilson fouled out halfway through the first overtime, and had to watch the Huskies lose in heartbreaking fashion from the bench.

After the game, a solemn Hurley praised Wilson’s performance, but emphasized that the Polley injury doesn’t guarantee extra minutes for anyone. Wilson’s effort in-game, and perhaps more importantly, in practice, will dictate his spot in the rotation, as it has all season.

“He practiced the last couple days like his life depended on it, and showed up today and played at an intensity level like his life depended on it,” Hurley said. “I’m not just playing him because Tyler got hurt. He played today because he had two good practices and then he earned himself more minutes by the way he played today.”

When Wilson’s motor is running as high as it was on Sunday, it makes it nearly impossible, as Bouknight said, for Hurley not to play him. Losing Polley for the season is a massive blow to the Huskies, and we’re left to wonder if he could’ve been the difference on Sunday. But despite the injury and the crushing defeat, it seems the team certainly isn’t going to stop battling.


Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at andrew.morrison@uconn.edu. He tweets @asmor24.

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