On Jan. 26, the UConn men’s basketball team suffered a gut-wrenching overtime defeat to Tulsa, pushing UConn’s conference record to an unsightly 1-5. In his postgame press conference, an impassioned Dan Hurley promised an eventual turnaround: “We’re going to turn these brutal losses into big-time seasons. It’s coming soon.” But from all indications, this year’s Huskies looked dead in the water.
Fast forward to today. After that 1-5 start, UConn went 9-3 the rest of the way in conference play, now having won five in a row. During that stretch, the Huskies have beaten each of the top three teams in the conference, and have done most of it without Akok Akok and Tyler Polley. The turnaround came sooner than we thought.
UConn (19-12, 10-8 The American) defeated Tulane, 80-76, on Sunday to clinch the No. 5 seed in the American Athletic Conference tournament. The Huskies needed two other results to go their way — Houston over Memphis, Wichita State over Tulsa — to move up from the No. 7 seed, and both of those dominoes fell in their favor.
“What a great accomplishment for those guys with everything they’ve been through in the course of the year,” Hurley said, as reported by Dom Amore. “The way the conference schedule was loaded up to try to break us early, but it didn’t happen. Those guys were too tough and too resilient.”
A No. 5 seed sets up a meeting with a familiar opponent, No. 12 Tulane, set for Thursday at 3 p.m. at Dickies Arena. No. 4 Wichita State awaits the winner, which UConn took to double overtime in early January but lost by three. However, that loss came before that miraculous transformation — and of course, UConn has to get past Tulane first.
It certainly wasn’t easy on Sunday, as the last-place Green Wave (12-18, 4-14 The American) just wouldn’t go away on their Senior Night. But despite maintaining a single-digit lead for nearly the entire game, UConn felt in control most of the way, thanks in large part to yet another monster game from senior Christian Vital.
Vital has been on a tear as of late, scoring over 20 points in six of the last seven games. During UConn’s current five-game winning streak, Vital has averaged 24.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and three steals, all while shooting over 52% from the field.
On Sunday, he had perhaps his best performance of the season, pouring in 28 points (on 8-of-15 shooting), six rebounds and two steals. It seemed whenever UConn needed a bucket, it was Vital who stepped up and made a shot. In the second half, after the Huskies missed eight straight field goals and Tulane pulled within five, Vital hit a huge stepback 3 to restart the offense.
“If you take the last six weeks, 12 games, I think he’s been the best player in the league,” Hurley said about Vital, according to the NH Register’s Dave Borges. “But when you’re 10-8, it’s hard to win that award. If we had gotten to 12 games, I think it would have been his.”
Despite Vital’s contributions, the Green Wave hung tough. Two free throws from Tulane’s Jordan Walker made it a two-point game with 54 seconds remaining, but that’s as close as it got. Junior Isaiah Whaley came up with a trademark timely block to deny Tulane’s next shot attempt, and Brendan Adams and Vital closed it out at the free throw line from there. For a team that seemed wholly incapable of winning close games earlier this season, the Huskies have firmly flipped the script.
“I don’t think it’s a mental thing anymore,” Hurley said. “We may play games now where a team may be better than us down the stretch, but the expectation of losing a game down the stretch — it’s out of our system going forward. From here on out. Forever.”
Although a No. 5 seed narrowly misses a first-round bye, UConn will gladly take a matchup with the last-place team after such a rocky start to the conference slate. Taking on the same Tulane team twice in a week, the Huskies’ postseason journey begins on Thursday at 3 p.m.