There were a ton of positives for UConn to take out of Tuesday night’s 73-61 victory over Providence. Tyrese Martin and R.J. Cole had really good games, combining for 31 points with decently efficient shooting. Isaiah Whaley just about did it all, picking up at least one of almost every stat in the book (including a technical foul). Even Josh Carlton, who didn’t see a minute of action last game and hadn’t played double-digit minutes in three weeks, had a good outing.
But really, there’s only one story to talk about from Tuesday — James Bouknight is back.
“I was nervous about the game, cause they’ve got really athletic guards,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “[Providence head coach Ed Cooley’s] teams historically are really tough defensively, physical. So yeah, I was worried. He [Bouknight] was better than I thought he was, you know, he stubbled around a little bit out there, but, I mean, you’re talking about one of the premier guards in the country.”
After being sidelined for about a month and a half due to an elbow injury Bouknight suffered diving for a loose ball, the current UConn star and potentially future NBA lottery pick made his long-awaited return.
Bouknight didn’t start, but a little over five minutes into the game and he was the first man off the bench. He made an immediate impact, contributing to a Whaley steal just seconds after coming on and then lobbing it to Martin for the easy layup in transition.
His first points came in typical Bouknight fashion, throwing down a thunderous put-back dunk that sent a shockwave through social media. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend looking it up. Just search “Bouknight” on Twitter, it won’t be hard to find.
He kept scoring, driving to the backboard, somehow making circus shots through traffic look effortless. Ultimately, Bouknight finished tied for the team-high with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the field and 4-of-5 from the line. His four rebounds were tied for third on the team, his two assists tied for second and his two steals stood alone at the top. And, he did all of this in just 24 minutes of action.
“James is a baller,” Hurley said. “He’s handled everything really, really beautifully since he’s been here, since he established himself last year, with how he played late in the year and how that didn’t affect him as a person, and how he interacted with his teammates and coaches…It means a lot to him to have played in this place, the history, the tradition. He’s obviously gonna come back and try to lead this team as far as he can take it through the rest of the year, and then he’s gonna be the next guy that goes into the NBA to continue that tradition, and he’s aware of all of it.”
Bouknight’s injury was unsurprisingly hard on UConn – that’s what happens when you lose your best player. The Huskies went 4-4 in the games he missed, including an 11 point loss to Providence just one week ago. Finding consistent scoring was tough, with really only Martin and Cole managing to put the ball in the hoop consistently.
But missing so much time was also hard on Bouknight.
“It was very frustrating, having to sit on the bench and knowing that there’s really not much I can do to help the team win,” Bouknight said. “That’s like the worst feeling when you’re just sitting there, and your team is down or losing a game, and you just feel like there’s nothing you can do to help the team. Just being able to go out there and play with my brothers again, I just tried to enjoy every moment, every second on the court.”
Now that he’s back, the whole team seems to be on top of their game. Part of it is due to opposing teams zeroing in on Bouknight so much that it opens up the floor for the other four guys, as Martin noted after the game. However, a lot of it also just has to do with the energy he brings. It just makes everyone play better.
Hurley echoed how much Bouknight has meant to this program and how much having a player of his caliber has done for the team. Now, he just hopes the season can end on a positive note.
“I’m just happy that — hopefully, knock on wood — that he’ll be healthy and able to finish the season,” Hurley said. “The UConn fans deserve to see him play to end his career here, and then he deserves to get to wear this uniform because he’s really elevated us at a time when this program was in brutal shape three years ago. What he’s been able to do for us the last two years, we owe him a lot.”
Bouknight is back, and if the Huskies want to make an end-of-season push to make the NCAA tournament, he’s going to have to will them there.