Two weeks after UConn celebrated Gampel Pavilion’s 30th birthday with a win over Memphis, it celebrated its biggest fan. Sunday was deemed “Big Red Day” to honor UConn superfan, Tom Emery. Per usual, he led the 9,524 in attendance through the “U-C-O-N-N” chant, arm motions and all and addressed his “second family” at halftime. The UConn men held up on their end of the deal, walking away 78-71 winners over USF. Here are a few key takeaways from the afternoon affair.
Whaley continues to step up
It was nothing short of emotional when redshirt freshman Akok Akok went down with a ruptured Achilles last week. Isaiah Whaley was thrust into starting minutes that were now up for grabs. He posted a career-high six blocks in the effort and has not looked back.
“When your program becomes closely knit, you become a family, when the culture is strong and the character of the team is strong, you also play so hard because you don’t wanna let down the guy next to you,” head coach Dan Hurley said on Whaley’s recent play.
Whaley has been and will continue to be in the starting lineup. Earning all of his 39 minutes in his first start since his freshman year, Whaley scored a career-best 18 points and 14 rebounds to match in the double-overtime loss at Temple. It was a tough act to follow, but “Porkchop” continued to do the little things Sunday — like diving for loose balls that lead to transition buckets and finding the right outlet after stealing the ball to put the team up 11 — that made his eight-point, five-rebound performance special.
“When the light switch comes on for players, you can’t always predict it,” Hurley said. “It’s just when they get an understanding of how they can bring the most value to the court. Understanding that the best thing you can do for your team is to bring the best version of yourself to the practice floor every day, bring it to the court every day without ego.”
His teammates have had no choice but to notice Whaley’s recent surge that has made it near impossible for Hurley to take him off the floor. He’s averaging 36 minutes over the last three games.
“He deserves everything he’s getting right now,” Christian Vital said. “He’s been big time. We’re not in these games without him.”
Vital becomes top 3-point shooter in The American
Speaking of Vital, he had himself a day. His 24 points outdid anyone else who touched the floor and his six rebounds led all Huskies, but it was one of his four made three-pointers that stood out amongst the rest.
With one smooth stroke, Vital cemented himself atop The American’s all-time made three-pointer list with 253, moving ahead of Temple’s Shizz Alston Jr.
“He’s been surrounded by freshmen, sophomores, injuries, all types of attrition,” Hurley said on Vital’s commitment. “He’s like Iron Man.”
Vital moved into the top-10 in made field goals as well with 504. He was already in the top-10 in free throws (375), points (1636) and steals (203) as one of the most prolific scorers the conference has seen. The honor is “nice,” he says, but the senior guard has his sights set on things greater than himself.
“It just shows the nights I was in Gampel and Werth shooting when no one was out there. So to know the work is paying off, I know I got a lot more work to do, but that’s definitely a nice accomplishment. I’ll take that.”
Bouknight embraces “Second-Half King” mentality
James Bouknight burst onto the scene early as a promising recruit and is taking the steps to become “the next one,” according to his head coach. He’s eclipsed the 20-point mark in three of the last six games, with large chunks of points coming in the second half.
Sunday was no different as the freshman scored 19 points, 16 of which came in 11 second-half minutes. Plagued by foul trouble early in the first half and again in the second, Bouknight was relegated to the bench for large chunks of time, but his head coach made sure his head stayed in the game.
“Just keep your head in the game mentally,” Hurley said he told the young guard. “You’re a closer.”
Vital, his backcourt mate and fellow New Yorker, had some fun with the youngster.
“I was telling him I was missing him in the first half,” Vital said. “In the second half I told him, ‘Alright, c’mon now,’ and I didn’t have to say too much after that.”
Performances like this aren’t uncommon for Bouknight. He scored 17 points last Sunday against Memphis, but shot just 2-for-11 for six first-half points. On the road against Tulsa, he scored a then career-high 22 points — 19 of which came in the second half. He beat that number with 23 in an overtime win over Cincinnati. He scored 17 in the second half.
While he would like to put together more complete performances, staying on the court and scoring for a full 40 minutes, Bouknight isn’t shying away from who he is.
“Coach Hurley calls me the ‘Second Half King’ so I just played my second half and it worked out,” Bouknight said after Sunday’s win.