In his halftime address to Gampel Pavilion, former UConn head coach Jim Calhoun had this message to the packed seats: “Believe in UConn, keep the faith, because we’ll be back.” Now, with back-to-back wins against the first-place team in the conference, UConn might be back sooner than we thought.
The Huskies (13-10, 4-6 The American) beat Cincinnati, 72-71, in an overtime thriller on Sunday, snapping the Bearcats’ five-game winning streak and dealing them just their second conference loss. Freshman James Bouknight, who had a team-high 23 points, knocked down a pair of clutch free throws with a minute remaining in OT and senior Christian Vital clamped down on Cincinnati’s (15-7, 8-2 The American) Jarron Cumberland in the final seconds to ice it.
“It’s a validation for all the efforts and what we’re trying to build here, and just how damn competitive we’ve been, to win a game like that,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the win. “We needed one like that.”
Defense was the difference on Sunday, as UConn made huge stops at the end of both regulation and overtime. Vital, who had 19 points and five rebounds, came up big on Cincinnati’s star both times. Although his halfcourt heave as time expired in regulation fell just short, Vital had a crucial offensive board and putback in overtime, and then locked up Cumberland with 2.7 seconds remaining. Guarded by Vital most of the night, Cumberland finished just 1-of-11 from the field with six turnovers.
“Christian did ‘Vital’ us a couple times in the second half, but the good far outweighed the bad,” Hurley joked, referring to Vital’s questionable shot selection at times. “The work he [and Brendan Adams] did on Cumberland defensively put us in a position to win the game.”
Adams was the sparkplug off the bench, drilling four threes en route to 16 points and five boards. When Cincinnati jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first half, Adams reignited the offense and the crowd, hitting back-to-back threes to key a 16-2 UConn run to close the half. The Huskies led by four at halftime, largely thanks to a combined 6-of-10 performance from beyond the arc.
“It was fun, it felt good to make shots,” Adams said. “I’ll shoot from anywhere. Today it was the corner, but I like all spots. I don’t really have any weak spots.”
After a quiet first half, it was the Bouknight show in the second, scoring 11 of UConn’s first 13 points out the break and 17 of his 23 in the second half. Besides the game-winning free throws, the freshman was UConn’s go-to option down the stretch, hitting a huge jumper with 1:06 in regulation which would ultimately send things to overtime.
“We’re a tough team to beat. We played eight games straight, losing by two, three points and we’re just showing now that we can win these games,” Bouknight said. “We played much harder, everyone was in tune and we just played a good game.”
UConn had been winless in all three overtime games this season entering Sunday, but finally got the job done against Cincinnati. The loss also snaps a streak of eight consecutive regular season losses to the Bearcats, and comes just a month after Cincinnati absolutely dominated UConn at the Fifth Third Arena.
“Six weeks ago, they manhandled us, treated us like little boys,” Hurley said. “We rose up to the challenge of physicality … it really shows the growth of the team.”
It certainly wasn’t easy. The tension was palpable in the waning seconds of overtime, with UConn leading by one. After another Cumberland miss, the ball went out of bounds and was declared UConn ball. But after review, the call was unexpectedly reversed, catching UConn off guard and giving the Bearcats a shot at a game-winner with 2.7 seconds on the clock.
Cumberland went one-on-one with Vital, and appeared to draw contact but it was likely after the buzzer. As the crowd erupted, there was some confusion on the court — Bouknight admitted that he initially thought a foul had been called — but the game was over, UConn prancing off with a massive victory. Hurley credited the crowd all game, especially in those final moments.
“When he pointed to the other end, I didn’t feel good about that, but I felt good about [our defense],” Hurley said. “I just knew with the crowd that we would really have to foul for them to call it. … Awesome crowd, they were the difference.”
With double-digit losses already, an at-large bid seems like a long shot at best for UConn at this point. But having now defeated the two hottest teams in the conference in the span of three days, suddenly a deep conference tournament run doesn’t seem so impossible. In the postgame locker room, the team had a newfound energy and optimism, but the sights are still set on a bigger goal.
“It’s a step in the right direction, but this is not what we came here for, to win two games in a row,” Vital said. “We gotta keep going. We’re gonna enjoy ourselves tonight, sleep a little bit better tonight, but once we wake up tomorrow, we gotta get ready for SMU.”
Thumbnail Photo courtesy of Eric Wang / The Daily Campus.