With 30 seconds to play, a 13-point lead and a win all but secured, Christian Vital let one last three-pointer fly as the shot clock expired.
He made it, his 10th point of the night, before turning to the Golden Hurricane fans looking on to give them one last wave goodbye, knowing just how much Thursday’s 72-56 win meant.
Road trips had not been too kind to the Huskies (12-10, 3-6 The American) before Thursday and neither had the Reynolds Center. UConn had never beaten Tulsa in a true-road contest in its time in the AAC, going 0-5 in its previous attempts, before winning in its last trip to the arena. UConn was also winless in its previous five true road games and 1-5 in its last six.
While Vital’s three will be the last image Tulsa (15-7, 7-2 The American) remembers of the Huskies as conference foes, James Bouknight made sure to leave his mark. The freshman guard scored a career-high 22 points, 19 of which came in the second half.
“Whenever you score like that, I don’t really know what’s happening,” Bouknight told the New Haven Register’s Dave Borges. “I just go and do it. I used to do it all the time in high school. Coach Hurley told me to shoot the ball. He felt I wasn’t aggressive enough in the first half.”
There were plenty of fouls to go around with 21 total whistle blows in the first half, forcing Hurley to use his bench. Alterique Gilbert and Isaiah Whaley rose to the occasion. Gilbert, who came off the bench for the second-straight game, scored 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting and found his touch from deep, hitting all three three-point attempts. Whaley was a force down low with 10 points and 12 rebounds while Josh Carlton had another disappointing performance (six points, four rebounds).
“That two-or-three day window he had just kind of re-charged, refreshed him, gave him a chance to look in the mirror and evaluate how he needs to play,” Hurley told Borges. “I think Jalen’s presence out there definitely helps. It takes pressure off Al.”
Hurley, who rarely strays from the norm, sent out a different starting lineup. Brendan Adams got his first start of the year, opting to bench Akok Akok for the first time as a “teaching moment,” he’d later tell the media after the game. The other usuals, Vital, Bouknight, Gaffney and Carlton — who played a game-low 12 minutes — were out there for the opening tip.
Tulsa, fully aware of UConn’s struggles shooting the ball, opened the game in a zone defense. Vital and Jalen Gaffney, however, did not care, as both hit threes in the opening minutes. Josh Carlton scored four of his six points in the span, along with two boards, and UConn was looking at a 10-8 lead at the first media timeout.
Then entered Martins Igbanu, the big man who terrorized the Huskies with 28 points in Tulsa’s overtime win in Hartford on Jan. 26. The senior forward scored six-straight for the Golden Hurricane and finished the half with 13, while he forced Carlton into early foul trouble. Tulsa was never able to eclipse a six-point lead in the opening 20 minutes.
UConn went dormant for a five minute span, shooting 1-for-10. Tulsa built a five-point advantage before Whaley ended the drought with a put back.
Gilbert closed the half with made threes on consecutive possessions, and then a deep two, to send his squad into the locker room up 31-29. UConn made 5-of-10 from beyond the arc in the first half while Tulsa missed on all five attempts.
“Whatever’s best for the team,” Gilbert told Borges on his new role. “If coach likes bringing me off the bench, that’s something I’m willing to do for the team. Absolutely.”
With some momentum on its side, UConn came out in the second half buzzing and humming, opening the half with a 13-2 run. Igbanu would not go away quietly as he scored eight on a 10-0 run to cut the Tulsa deficit to one with 13:44 to play.
Then Bouknight took over. He scored 11-straight points for the Huskies, going 3-for-3 from deep over the stretch, to boost the lead back to eight. As a team, the Huskies finished 10-for-22 from three-point range and made 51.9 percent of all their shots.
With about five minutes to play, the young guard from Brooklyn got wrapped up with Tulsa’s Isaiah Hill, who was on the ground, resulting in a double technical foul and forcing Bouknight to the bench with four and a single-digit lead.
Gilbert converted a clutch and-one with 4:13 to play to give UConn an 11-point advantage before closing the game on an 8-3 spurt.
This was a big boost for a team who has struggled to close games. Though they lost the turnover battle 17-15, the Huskies held Tulsa to a 41 percent mark from the floor and 1-for-12 from deep while out rebounding 37-22. UConn had double Tulsa’s second-chance points (18-9).
Next time out, the Huskies return home to celebrate Gampel Pavilion’s 30th birthday when Cincinnati comes to town. The Bearcats took down Wichita State by one on the road Thursday night.