The American Athletic Conference’s all-time leader in made 3-pointers added five more to that total on Saturday, as senior Christian Vital went off for 27 points, six boards and four steals, leading an undermanned UConn to a dominant 84-63 victory over ECU.
“We had to turn it up, simple as that,” a confident Vital said after the win, as reported by the Courant’s Dom Amore. “We knew the situation we were in, everyone was locked in. We did a great job of having each other’s back out there. They were going to try to do stuff to take us out of the game, and for obvious reasons, we’re better than them.”
Having now won six of eight, UConn (17-12, 8-8 The American) has climbed back to an even .500 record in conference play — the first time it’s done that since the 2017-18 season. With two games remaining in the regular season, the Huskies currently hold the No. 7 seed in the conference, but just one game separates seeds four through seven.
Freshman James Bouknight had the first double-double of his UConn career, scoring 19 to go along with 10 rebounds. Perhaps more memorably, he had the dunk of the season late in the first half, cranking back an alley-oop from Jalen Gaffney before yamming it on the entire nonexistent state of East Carolina.
“The pass was very bad, it wasn’t a good pass,” Bouknight joked afterwards, as reported by David Borges, poking fun at his fellow freshman and close friend. “I just reached … I tried to grab it so I didn’t look bad and just threw it, and it went in.”
GET UP❗️Bouknight with the one-handed slam! 😤
— UConn Men's Basketball (@UConnMBB) February 29, 2020
The Huskies had just seven scholarship players available on Saturday on account of a rash of injuries and, as announced on Friday, the indefinite suspension of Sidney Wilson due to a violation of team rules. Four players logged over 30 minutes of court time in the win and while foul trouble was a concern, fatigue or panic were nowhere to be seen.
“The team’s been through so many storms, it was easy to weather that one after everything we’ve been through,” head coach Dan Hurley said, as reported by Borges. “We asked them to play this like a playoff game today.”
If the UConn defensive gameplan was to zero in on ECU’s (11-19, 5-12 The American) most talented player, Jayden Gardner, then Hurley should be pleased with his team’s effort. Gardner, who was defended by junior Isaiah Whaley for most of the afternoon, was essentially a non-factor on the offensive end, making just two of his 10 field goals for nine points and five turnovers. It’s the first time this season Gardner has been held below double-digit points.
“We disrupted his rhythm,” Hurley said. “Isaiah did a great job early, bothering him with his length, then Brendan [Adams] bothered him with his quickness. And the other guys did a good job showing bodies.”
Things got chippy in the first half as Alterique Gilbert and Tre Robinson-White got into it, earning double-technicals. Although uncharacteristic of Gilbert, the exchange seemed to light a fire under the Huskies. On the ensuing possession, Gilbert ripped the ball away from Robinson-White. Moments later came the Bouknight dunk heard round the world, followed shortly by a Gaffney 3 to cap a 10-0 run, pushing the lead to 40-26.
UConn led 42-30 at the half but the Pirates came out swinging in the second, cutting the lead to seven. But once again, it was extracurricular activity which reinvigorated UConn, as ECU’s JJ Miles was ejected for slapping the ball out of Vital’s hands after the whistle. Vital answered with three straight makes, all from beyond the arc, to make it 60-47.
“Things got chippy out there, but Christian was the one guy I wasn’t worried about,” Hurley said. “He was a calming influence in the timeout, he was communicating a message that older guys should say, that the only way we were going to lose that game is if we got caught up in all the bull.”
Foul trouble came into play when Vital picked up his third personal, forcing him to the bench. Without the senior on the floor, the Pirates came storming back, trimming the deficit to 62-56 midway through the half. Hurley took a timeout, Vital checked back in and the Huskies immediately regained some wiggle room, seizing a 69-57 lead.
From there on it was all UConn, as Gardner tried and failed to find his shot. In addition to his defense on Gardner, Whaley was once again the unsung hero on both ends, adding 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting with four offensive boards. Vital finished just three points shy of his career-high, but the senior’s play has the young guys dreaming big as we arrive at the biggest month in college basketball.
“I used to say all the time and people looked at me like I was crazy: I still think we can make the tournament,” Bouknight said after the win. “I think we can win this conference.”
Senior Night arrives on Thursday, as the Huskies play at Gampel Pavilion for the final time this season — and Vital (and possibly Gilbert), for the final time in his career.