It was a refined combination of youth and veteran leadership that guided the UConn men in a gritty and emotional 64-61 win over Memphis.
Sunday’s contest was yet another revenge game of sorts for the Huskies (14-11, 5-7 The American), who have beaten the likes of Cincinnati, Tulsa and now Memphis, after previously suffering losses. UConn did not escape completely unscathed, however, losing starting big man Akok Akok to a torn Achilles tendon just 58 seconds into the game.
“It was a big win, obviously, but it doesn’t feel like it,” head coach Dan Hurley said through tears afterwards. “There’s no joy in it when something like that happens in the first minute. Sports are brutal sometimes, life is brutal sometimes.”
The team was hurt, but not totally lost, in the moments after. Shots were tough to come by in the first half with UConn shooting 28% and 31 overall, but the vets did what they’re supposed to do: Lead.
Christian Vital scored 18 of his game-high 23 points in the second half, shooting 5-for-15 overall, but made all 10 of his shots from the charity stripe. His nine boards were second to Josh Carlton’s career-high 13 and Isaiah Whaley, who filled in for the injured Akok, set a new PR in blocked shots with 6—all in the second half.
“Christian, Josh, Isaiah in particular, the character as older players and Brendan and the freshmen, they’re just helping us daily build character as a program and culture,” Hurley said.
Christian Vital's 23 points moved him into a tie for 18th place on UConn's all-time scoring list with Earl Kelley at 1,592.
— Neill Ostrout (@NeillOstrout) February 17, 2020
James Bouknight, who has ascended from a highly-touted recruit to a budding star, had a first half that compared to the team’s holistic numbers with six points on 2-for-11 shooting. He then flipped a switch after halftime and finished with 17 points and career-high eight rebounds in 32 minutes.
“Coach Hurley is always in conference with me,” the freshman guard said. “When I had a tough first half, couldn’t make any shots, he was just telling me that I was the second-half king.”
Akok came back to the bench, wearing a boot and on crutches, shortly after suffering his injury. It was an emotional scene when his head coach embraced him on the side, but the men on the court were going to work. The Carlton-Whaley tandem outdid the young Tigers (17-8, 6-6 The American) on the glass, winning the game’s rebounding battle 45-42 and outscoring Memphis 17-11 in second-chance points. Precious Achiuwa finished with 16 points but missed 11-straight points for a stretch.
The Huskies did not lead for much of the game and entered the half knotted at 25 with the Tigers. UConn took its first lead of the second half—and since 1:48 in the first—at 8:59. Outside of a brief moment, it did not relinquish the lead the rest of the way, handing over the keys to Bouknight and Vital.
On one sequence, Vital forced a turnover, kept it in bounds by throwing it off a Tiger and tossed it ahead to a running Bouknight. The freshman finished emphatically—and overtop Achiuwa—for an and-one. UConn led by five with 3:05 to play and the sold-out XL Center crowd loved every second of it.
“I think we’re starting to gel,” Vital said. “I think we’re figuring each other out at the right time and we’re just gonna stay confident, stay confident in each other, stay in the lab and keep taking it a day at a time.”
“Our fans are great, they’re always loud,” Bouknight added. “Sometimes they’re too loud and I can’t hear the play calls. I wasn’t shooting my best and I can still hear people saying my name. It’s a lot of love.”
Vital made the final four free throws of the game, in a game where UConn went 18-20 from the line, to secure the game late.
“I think we’re just learning how to win now,” Bouknight said. “We’re just all confident in each other. We know each other’s abilities and we know what we can do as individuals so we just go out and play our hardest.”
The Hurley culture of grit and toughness has shown itself in bits and pieces throughout the season, but is becoming more apparent each time UConn takes the floor. Sunday, fighting for a win after losing a teammate to injury, was a prime example.
“Everyone poo-poos culture, but most of those people don’t know s— about how to build an organization because they’ve never really been in one,” Hurley said. “We’re building a championship-level culture with the way we’re competing and how determined we are to win.”
The Huskies have six contests before their conference tournament, the next being a midweek road trip to Temple, but are more than ready for the challenge.
“March is about to be here,” Vital said.