Sunday afternoon was a sight UConn fans have become all too used to bearing witness to.
After trailing by as much as nine points, the UConn men battled back to force overtime against the Tulsa Golden Hurricane, but eventually fell 79-75. Sunday’s performance sits side-by-side with the double-overtime losses to Xavier and Wichita State, as well as the Villanova and Houston defeats among “excruciating losses” on the season.
“Kind of tuning in and watching the same movie there,” head coach Dan Hurley said afterward. “Battle our tail off, just don’t have quite enough, just don’t have the ability down the stretch of these really tough losses to make the plays on either end.”
While the veteran Huskies struggled early on, Hurley turned the reigns over to the underclassmen. A lineup combination of James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney, Brendan Adams, Akok Akok and Sidney Wilson—three freshmen and two sophomores—strung together a 12-0 run in the second half, putting the Huskies (10-9, 1-5 The American) ahead for the first time since the 8:08 mark in the first.
“We just had to bring energy that maybe some people were lacking,” Bouknight said, who led the team with 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting in 21 minutes. “Trying to play tough on both sides of the ball, talk to each other, that’s really it. The energy level was down and we just picked it up.”
Bouknight picked up his fourth foul with 9:48 to play and a three-point lead. Tulsa’s Martins Igbanu kept the Golden Hurricane on track en route to his 28-point, 10-rebound double-double. He also helped keep UConn alive in the waning seconds of regulation.
With 19 seconds to play, Igbanu stepped the free throw line, made his first shot, but missed the second. This made it a 61-58 game and gave UConn a chance with the ball.
Out of the timeout, Gaffney found the ball in his hands with eight seconds on the clock. He drove baseline and fired a one-handed pass to an open Vital in the opposite corner. His shot was blocked, but the senior guard was fouled on the play.
Reminiscent of his game-winning free throws at Madison Square Garden against Syracuse as a freshman, Vital sunk the first two shots. After Tulsa (14-6, 6-1 AAC) tried to ice him with a time out, he nailed the third. Tulsa’s last-second shot was no good, forcing five more minutes of basketball.
“When you get to overtime, you get another little boost,” Bouknight said. “An adrenaline rush.”
Overtime was dominated by Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane didn’t miss a shot in the extra frame, shooting 5-of-5 from the floor and 8-of-10 from the stripe to close out the game. Tulsa stays first in the conference with the win and has won five straight. It has been a different story for the Huskies who have dropped four in a row.
“Tough locker room in there,” Hurley said. “I don’t think I’ve seen a team go through a four-game stretch like this.”
With the young guys on the floor, the defense was stout and the ball moved from corner to corner against Tulsa’s 2-3 zone defense. Akok finished with 13 points, including a go-ahead three with 3:32 to play. His seven blocks were a new career-high.
Adams shot 50% (3-of-6) for his nine points in nearly 30 minutes off the bench. Wilson had 12 points and seven rebounds. Gaffney, who ran the show while Alterique Gilbert sat, scored eight points and dished out five of the team’s 18 assists. UConn turned the ball over just 10 times.
“Felt great about the way the young guys played,” Hurley said. “They’re growing through the pain we’re going through right now.”
The telltale sign for the game was Bouknight scoring the first bucket of the day via a three-pointer nearly three minutes into the game. From there, the Huskies shot just 4-of-15 from deep in the opening 20 minutes and 9-for-28 overall against a disciplined Tulsa defense.
Gilbert and Vital were not sharp, shooting a combined 1-for-10. Vital missed a last-second three to cap off an 0-for-5 first half. Tulsa made only one more shot than UConn and attempted a third of the three-pointers to claim a 28-23 halftime lead.
Gilbert let his poor offensive showing carry over to his defense, his coach said, and a missed box out by Carlton – that led to a three-point play for Tulsa – left Hurley irate. The two veterans sat most of the second half.
“If your freshmen are your best players in a game versus a 5-1 conference opponent, home or on the road, it’s going to be hard for you to win,” Hurley said. “We need [the older guys] to play better.”
“At times it just looked like men out there versus boys,” he added.
With the young core on the floor, the Huskies shifted the tide in their favor. They shot to an improved 10-of-37 mark from the floor and brought the 10,509 in attendance to their feet multiple times. The press was working (seven forced turnovers in the second half), shots were falling, UConn was getting to the line (10 free throw attempts) and a made three by Adams had the Huskies up four with just under nine minutes to play.
“When all those young guys were out there, we were just bringing a lot of energy,” Akok said. “We had a little bit of a lead, it felt good.”
UConn was playing with confidence, something that had been missing from the program over the last few seasons, but has become a pillar of a team looking to establish an identity.
“Early in the year, me and the young guys we struggled, so just for him to have the confidence in us like that, it just shows how it’s good to feel from your coach having so much confidence in us,” Wilson said.
As the teams traded baskets down the stretch, mostly made free throws from Igbanu, Jeriah Horne (11 points) nullified Akok’s made three with one of his own. Brandon Rachal (14 points) proved to be a thorn in UConn’s side once more when he made a layup to give Tulsa a two-point lead, setting up Igbanu’s last chance at the line before Vital tied the game.
The losses have piled up for UConn over the last week or so, and in heartbreaking fashion. While it is easy for heads to hang in a situation like this, especially for the newcomers, the outlook remains positive across the program
“The message to these guys this year is ‘Young guys, we all need you to help us. You’re all helping us build something here every day,’” Hurley said.
The young core will have another opportunity to grow when Temple pays a visit to Storrs on Wednesday night.