In early January, UConn got embarrassed by USF in Tampa. Now, a month and a half later, the Huskies flipped the script, beating the Bulls 78-71 in Gampel Pavilion.
It was the Christian Vital show Sunday afternoon, scoring 24 points on 8-of-15 shooting including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc. Not only that, but his second three of the game made him the all-time three-point leader in the American Athletic Conference. He currently sits at 224 three-pointers and climbing, just one more mark UConn will leave on the conference long after they are gone.
“That’s a nice accomplishment, but I’d rather win more games,” Vital said.
It’s been a tough season for the Huskies, not only playing and losing so many close games but also having to do so much relying on freshman and sophomores. Season-ending injuries to both Tyler Polley and Akok Akok only made things tougher as it shortened the bench to three, not including the walk-ons, which makes the production and leadership of Vital, a senior, that much more important.
“Coming into the season I kind of knew the situation,” Vital said. “Didn’t expect a couple of my brothers to go down the way they did, unfortunately, so it just kind of puts a bigger emphasis on not only myself but everyone on the team. But obviously, as a senior guard at UConn, those are the guys who are expected to step up, so I know I’ve got to step up.”
While it was Vital who brought that consistency throughout the game, it was freshman James Bouknight who sealed things for the Huskies.
Bouknight got into foul trouble early, picking up two under five minutes into the game and then sitting the rest of the first half. He started the second half, but all of seven seconds into the action and he already picked up his third, prompting him to sit until the 11-minute mark when he finally came back into the game – and took over.
“James is, he’s the next one, or he’s got a chance to be the next one,” head coach Dan Hurley. “If he locks in on where he is right now, and just continues to focus on his habits and the details of the game, get into the offseason, working on his body and his basketball understanding. When he puts it all together for us next year, you’re looking at potentially, that next one.”
In essentially the final quarter of the game, Bouknight scored 16 of his 19 points, highlighted by a rim-shaking put-back dunk off a Vital miss that sent Gampel into a frenzy.
“I had turned the ball over before, and in my head, I was just thinking film, film session,” Bouknight said. “He just happened to miss the shot and I just tried to execute on the opportunity, because now he’s gonna have to cut that part out just to show the turnover.”
Bouknight’s dunk came just over two minutes after Vital similarly sent Gampel into a roar following a highlight steal and tomahawk dunk that forced USF into a timeout.
However, the Bulls stuck around until late on the backs of an absurd 62.1 second-half field goal percentage that included going 6-for-8 from three. But a Vital three with 2:35 left in the game pushed the lead to six and then was followed by five straight points from Bouknight, pushing the UConn lead to 11. It wouldn’t get lower than nine until a meaningless USF three with 10 seconds left when the game was all but over.
While it was Vital and then later Bouknight who led the charge on the offensive end, Isaiah Whaley had yet another stellar game in the paint. While he only finished with eight points and five boards, his impact was felt by means of four blocks and two steals, making it 12 blocks over his past three games.
“The light switch coming on for players, it’s like, 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. Just understanding that the best thing you can do for your team is bring the best version of yourself to the practice floor every day, bring it to court every day without ego … he embraces the little things that lead to victory.”
Jalen Gaffney and Brendan Adams each also had very good games, contributing ten points apiece on a combined 50% shooting. Alterique Gilbert buried his only shot of the game, a three, but had the same number of points as he did turnovers, and Josh Carlton and Sid Wilson both played sparingly, combining for four points, four rebounds and four fouls in 19 minutes of action.
The Huskies will be in Hartford on Wednesday when they host the UCF Knights in their last trip to the XL Center of the season.