The Huskies have had enough of the close calls and the overtime affairs. So, instead, the UConn men pieced together an 81-65 win over UCF in the last AAC game at the XL Center.
You don’t have to go as far as you may think to find UConn’s (16-12, 7-8 The American) last double-digit win. That came on Feb. 6, also a 16-point win, on the road over Tulsa. That was also before Akok Akok was lost for the rest of the season and before Isaiah Whaley – who matched a career-high with 18 points Wednesday – became a force to be reckoned with.
“My mentality has been the same,” Whaley said about his recent play. “It’s just been go hard, take what’s given to me, never try to do too much, don’t try something I can’t do and just try to give what the defense gives me”
Whaley, a junior, recorded his fourth double-double in his career. A reserved player by nature, he began to show his emotions on the floor in the win. After an emphatic two-hand slam to put his team up 44-38 early on in the second half, he roared and pumped his fists as he bounced back to the defensive end.
It took a full-team effort to pull off the win. Christian Vital dropped 18 points with seven rebounds and four steals in his final performance in Hartford. James Bouknight had 16 points and matched Vital in boards. Brendan Adams and Alterique Gilbert scored nine and six. Carlton added eight points and fouled out late, making way for Whaley to finish his double-double.
“It flew,” Vital, who reached 12th on UConn’s all-time scoring list, said on his last game in Hartford. “It’s crazy. I was just thinking about it in the locker room like that was my last one. It’s crazy, but that;’s life though. You gotta keep on going. Life doesn’t wait for anybody.”
UConn lead by as much as 19 after Adams made a couple of free throws with a minute and change left in the game. Gilbert, Vital and Carlton authored a quick nine-point burst earlier to build a 16-point lead with more than 11 minutes to play. UConn made nearly half of all its shots (49%) and went 5-for-19 from beyond the arc.
Sprinkled in the mix was a Jalen Gaffney smooth reverse lay-up that dropped assistant coach Kenya Hunter’s jaw and Bouknight caught a lob from Gilbert in a passing-of-the-torch type of moment. Both plays brought the 9,480 in attendance to their feet.
Despite a period of three turnovers in three minutes, the second half belonged to the Huskies. UConn outrebounded UCF (14-13, 5-10 The American) 36-28 overall with 18 in the second half. It was a 48-38 win for the Huskies in the paint, 34 points coming after halftime.
“I wasn’t thrilled with the way we ended the first half,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “We had a good talk at halftime about finishing plays and playing with a lot more urgency. Just thrilled with the second half performance”
The win marked No. 16 on the season and secured a winning season for the first time in four years – quite a difference from when Hurley first came to Storrs.
“This was a massive rebuild,” Hurley said on securing a winning season. “It was what it was across the board. Just to show the progress and to get to seven conference wins, we had six all of last year, and to avoid a losing season. When you lose Tyler [Polley] to the ACL and when you start three freshmen, a couple weeks ago we were wondering how we were going to win a couple games. It’s the next step that we’re taking.”
It was who else but Whaley to get the Huskies on the board first. UConn looked to its big men early as Whaley and Carlton combined for three buckets as the Huskies took an early 8-2 lead. The Huskies made five of their first six shot attempts and made 43% of their takes in the first half.
“Coach said he needed someone to step up,” Whaley said on stepping into Akok’s role, “and I knew I’d be the next guy up so I just really wanted to step up and have a presence on the team.”
Vital and Bouknight, the “Second Half King,” knocked down a pair of threes before UCF pieced together a quick 6-0 spurt. Carlton interrupted with a lay-in, but back-to-back buckets from Ceasar DeJesus, who finished with 14 points, put the Knights ahead 18-16.
Then the Knights went scoreless for four minutes and 19 seconds while the Huskies built a nine-point lead, their largest at the time. Adams made a lay-up, Bouknight a three and Whaley and Gaffney each made a pair of free throws.
UCF couldn’t put any real stretches together the rest of the half, never scoring more than four in a row. Whaley scored the last four Husky points in the first and UConn went into the locker room up 36-32 and shooting 31% from downtown.
A winning season and playing with confidence, it doesn’t matter that the Huskies lost two starters to serious injuries, they’ve won five of their last seven. For some it’s the most fun they’ve had in a UConn uniform.
— UConn Men's Basketball (@UConnMBB) February 27, 2020
“This is the most positive vibes we’ve had since I’ve been here,” Whaley said. “First two years it was really rough, but everybody’s in good spirits right now. We’re still playing for stuff right now. We’re still playing meaningful games.”
The Huskies have three games left ahead of the conference tournament. They have yet to beat ECU, who they play on Saturday, and Houston, who will make the trek for Senior Day in Storrs next week. More opportunities to spread the positive vibes.