There aren’t many things that can bring a sold-out crowd to deafening silence. A devastating injury to one of the most beloved and integral players on the team is, unfortunately, one of those things.
In front of the first sold out XL Center in two years, redshirt freshman Akok Akok made what should’ve been a highlight reel play: A block on Memphis freshman Precious Achiuwa, one of the most highly regarded prospects in college hoops who for a while seemed headed to a UConn uniform.
But on the landing, Akok’s left leg buckled. He turned around as if someone had hit him from behind, then collapsed in pain and, because this is Akok we’re talking about, did everything in his power to get up and carry on playing. But he fell once again, unable to put any weight on the leg, and this time could only lie there as his teammates and coaches surrounded him.
The tears began flowing as Akok was carried to the locker room, probably due to a mix of pain and the dread of the news to come. Soon after, that news turned out to be as awful as feared: A likely Achilles tear, to be confirmed by an MRI on Monday. Not even a minute into the game, and UConn had lost one of its bright stars for not only the remainder of the season, but likely a good chunk of next year as well.
When head coach Dan Hurley received the news on the sideline, he was visibly distraught, overcome with anguish. All season long, Hurley has raved about Akok’s unwavering work ethic and dedication to the team. In the moment, he had to coach and somehow gather his team’s emotions. But after the game, he admitted he’s nowhere close to recovering from the sight of Akok going down.
“It will take months, a long time — you have no idea how close these kids are with each other, with the coaches. It’s a family,” Hurley said after the game. “I’ve never seen someone with this kid’s work ethic. He deserved better.”
ESPN just showed this clip of Hurley from what I imagine is just moments after being told Akok Akok tore his Achilles. pic.twitter.com/qEWBWKA38Y
— tcf15 (@tcf_15) February 16, 2020
But there’s one other thing that can silence a sold-out crowd: Free throws with the game on the line. And as senior Christian Vital stepped to the line for four free throws in the final 10 seconds, you could hear a pin drop. Vital drilled all four, a perfect 10-for-10 from the line on the day, delivering the nail in the coffin as UConn battled to an inspiring 64-61 victory over Memphis.
Hurley fought back tears for the entirety of his postgame press conference, clearly hurting more for Akok as a person than for Akok as a basketball player.
“It was a big win obviously, but there’s no joy in it when something like that happens in the first minute,” Hurley said, his voice breaking. “Sports are brutal sometimes, life is brutal sometimes … Akok will come back and be the special player that he deserves to be, is destined to be.”
In between those moments of silence, the XL Center was as loud as it’s been in a long time. When freshman James Bouknight took a Vital feed and dunked all over Achiuwa, and-one, to give the Huskies a four-point advantage with three minutes to go, the explosion of sound probably registered on the Richter scale.
“We won the game for him,” Bouknight said. “It’s always going to be emotional — being around him, that’s really my brother, not just my teammate at this point. So that was very upsetting, but I talked to him, and he just wanted us to win the game.”
It was a season-defining victory amidst a season of bad breaks, the biggest one of all occurring in the first minute, as Akok joins Tyler Polley on the list of players’ seasons cut early due to injury. It was a win that would not have been possible without some huge performances from the rest of the UConn frontcourt, stepping up for their fallen teammate.
Junior Josh Carlton was massive on the boards, pulling down a career-high 13 rebounds to help the undersized Huskies outdo the athletic Tigers in the rebound category. Junior Isaiah Whaley more than filled in for the loss of Akok on the defensive end, recording a career-high six blocks, including two monumental ones in the final minutes.
“When Coach told me what happened, I was in shock. It was hard to get over,” Whaley said. “When you lose a shot blocker like Akok, somebody has to pick up the slack, so that’s what I tried to do.”
While Whaley and Carlton came up big defensively, it was on Vital and Bouknight to carry the offense. Neither had a pretty shooting performance, but the two combined for 29 of UConn’s 39 second half points. After the game, Vital said that the team will “be with him the rest of the way,” but asked the media to not ask any further questions about Akok, clearly still deeply hurting over the injury.
Akok refused to go to the hospital, instead putting on a boot and watching the rest of the game from the bench. It was odd not seeing Akok’s usual antics on the bench — no jumping when his teammates challenge a shot, no leaning as a UConn 3-pointer goes up, no goofy smile — but his presence was enough. When the game ended, he waved off crutches, instead asking an assistant to help him hobble down the handshake line on one leg.
“It’s hard with any of these guys, even the guy that drives you nuts the most. But he’s been perfect — he hadn’t played perfect games, but his approach every day was perfect,” Hurley said, barely holding back tears. “He will be back.”
Thumbnail Photo by Maggie Chafouleas/The Daily Campus.