Not many things have gone right for UConn during Christian Vital’s and Alterique Gilbert’s four-year careers. But on Thursday, for once, everything went perfectly.
Fueled by tenacious defense, a deafening crowd and of course, a healthy dose of pure heart from the senior backcourt, Vital and Gilbert got the best send-off they could’ve asked for: A thrilling upset of No. 21 Houston in front of a packed Gampel Pavilion on Senior Night.
“Over the last three years, it’s been a lot of adversity. I would say this is a little of the reward, but we just gotta keep building,” Gilbert said. “We know if we stay together as a team, we’ve got a chance of beating anyone in the conference, absolutely.”
Led by 19 second half points from Vital, the Huskies (18-12, 9-8 The American) fought back from a seven-point halftime deficit to knock off the Cougars, 77-71. Houston (22-8, 12-5) had a 3-point onslaught in the final minute but fittingly, it was Vital who calmly stepped to the line each time, going a perfect 8-for-8 from the line in the final minute to seal the win.
“It meant a lot. I ain’t gonna lie, it meant a lot,” Vital said on ending his Gampel career on that note. “Just everything the program has been through, what my teammates have been through, what I’ve been through personally, to win like that, in front of a crowd like that, on a night like this? It meant a lot. I’ll remember it for a long time.”
Vital had 26 in the game, moving him into the top-10 on UConn’s all-time scoring list. Freshman James Bouknight had 17 points and seven boards and junior Isaiah Whaley added 13 points and five rebounds. UConn’s typical brand of superb defense was especially dominant on Thursday, holding a dangerous Houston team to 36% shooting and keeping perhaps the best rebounding team in the country in check on the boards.
“To play and defeat a team like Houston, you damn near have to kill ‘em,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Great defensive effort, and I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”
If you ask head coach Kelvin Sampson, the game was lost (or won, from UConn’s perspective) on a play midway through the second half. With 8:06 remaining and UConn clinging to a one-point lead, Vital stepped in front of a Houston pass, keying a fast break. It was Vital’s night to shine, but in this moment, he passed it ahead to Bouknight, who made a tough layup through contact. The crowd was sent into a frenzy, and the Huskies had a three-point lead that they would never relinquish.
In the box score, that play goes down as an ordinary steal-and-score. But it was the point where, even as just a three-point lead, the Huskies finally felt in firm control. And, if you want to take it a step further, that simple pass from Vital to Bouknight was a passing of the torch from the present to the future of UConn men’s basketball.
“In an environment like this, a live-ball turnover is like pouring gasoline on a burning car — it’s gonna explode,” Sampson said on that moment. “I’ve been in this building when Jim [Calhoun] was the coach, and it sounded like the old days in there tonight.”
Two minutes later, Vital had a second steal-and-score, this time taking it himself, that sent the crowd into absolute mayhem. He had 14 of UConn’s last 21 points, refusing to end his Gampel career on a loss.
“I could tell on a lot of possessions that he just wasn’t gonna let us lose,” Whaley said. “Especially at the end, when they started making a bunch of 3s, he demanded the ball so he could get to the free throw line because he wasn’t gonna let us lose. That’s tremendous leadership on him.”
Vital, along with Gilbert, Temi Aiyegbusi and Mamadou Diarra were all honored in Senior Night pregame ceremonies. Hurley was noticeably emotional, particularly when Vital’s name was announced one final time at Gampel.
“I mean, there were times last year when I wasn’t sure if we could coexist,” Hurley said. “But that’s the joy of coaching — to see a young man change, mature and develop into a great player. He’s played as well as anyone in the conference in the last six, seven weeks.”
Gilbert, who was questionable to play with back spasms, had a quiet nine points and two assists but was simply tremendous on the defense end. His on-ball defense was a large reason why Houston starting guard Marcus Sasser, perhaps the Cougars’ best player as of late, shot 1-for-12 from the floor.
“Al was big-time, not knowing if he was gonna play,” Bouknight said. “He came out and was dominant. He locked up their best player.”
Houston scored the first five points of the game but for the next seven minutes, it was all Huskies. UConn answered with a 16-0 run, as Houston appeared utterly rattled by the defensive pressure and raucous crowd.
The Cougars ended the half on a 10-0 run to carry a seven-point lead into the second half, but Hurley’s message at the halftime was clear: We’re the better team.
“We outplayed them in the first half. Sometimes I go in there and go nuts, but that wasn’t the case today,” Hurley said. “It was about building their confidence up at halftime, and letting them know to beat a team of this caliber, you gotta weather the storms.”
Having weathered the storm, the Huskies stormed back after halftime, tying it up at 41 apiece with 16:13 left on a Vital corner 3, and they only kept coming. Those two Vital steal-and-scores were part of an 11-0 run that would turn out to be the game-clinching stretch.
Vital hit a circus layup with 3:36 remaining to push the lead to nine, and Bouknight immediately followed it up with an even more improbable layup to make it 11. As you can imagine, Gampel was shaking.
Vital addressed the crowd after the game, concluding his speech with, “Snipa out,” before ceremoniously dropping the mic. With the win, Hurley has now defeated every team in The American at least once, and this season, UConn has now beaten each of the top-four seeds in the conference.
“This was a mental hurdle for us that we now know, as the University of Connecticut heads to Dallas for the conference tournament,” Hurley said with a smirk, “that we can beat anyone in the field.”