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Polley, Huskies upset No. 15 Florida

POSTED November 17, 2019
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia

STORRS – Screaming at the top of his lungs, Tyler Polley had finally reached a place that, in his words, took “forever” to arrive.

The 6-foot-9 junior from Florida has had his ups and downs at UConn. In his freshman year, he averaged only 2.7 points per game despite registering 10 starts in Kevin Ollie’s final and tumultuous season at the school. Last season, under Dan Hurley, he showed some signs of improvement, increasing his scoring to 8.4 a game. He struggled, though, to make a visible impact.  

Against No. 15 Florida at a raucous Gampel Pavilion Sunday, the Huskies led by one early in the second half of a slugfest. Enter Polley. First, he hit a tough baseline jumper and then followed with two consecutive three-pointers to give UConn a six-point advantage. Florida called timeout and Polley yelled and celebrated with his teammates all the way back to the huddle in, what could be argued, the loudest Gampel Pavilion game in years.

The Huskies would never relinquish that lead, hanging on for a 62-59 victory. It was a moment Polley had always wanted to experience.

“It was really my first Gampel moment,” said Polley, who tied with Christian Vital for a team-high 15 points and was a plus-10, the highest in the game. “It was crazy. It was such a great feeling.”

Polley had mixed reviews from Hurley after their opening night win, with Hurley calling Polley’s 10-point effort, “a little too last-yearish.” UConn then suffered an ugly loss at home on Wednesday to St. Joseph’s, the 199th-ranked team in the KenPom ratings. Needless to say, Hurley felt a little better after Sunday.

“Tyler has a chance to be a big-time shooter,” Hurley said. “I really liked what I saw.”

UConn’s issues the past three seasons have been well documented. Hurley, having built two programs in Wagner and Rhode Island, knows how to handle a rebuilding process, but, like his fan base, has a hard time staying patient. This win, UConn’s first over a ranked team in Storrs since 2013 when it beat No. 15 Florida on Shabazz Napier’s famous buzzer beater, is a nice step in the direction the program is desperately trying to get back to.

“It’s important for us to win as many games as we can this year as a program and to fight our tail off to have the opportunity to play in a postseason tournament, to have a winning season,” Hurley said. “It’s critically important for the psyche and the trajectory of the program. A game like that with the TV (national audience on ESPN) and the crowd (sold out at 10,167) is much-needed for us. We know where we are. It’s a process to get this thing back to the level we want.”

An NCAA Tournament appearance would be the ultimate destination this season, but based on Hurley’s outlook, even an NIT trip is important. The way the Huskies adjusted after Wednesday’s loss shows they are at least on that path.

Their backcourt of Vital and Alterique Gilbert combined to shoot 10-of-40 against St. Joseph’s with only four assists in the loss. On Sunday, they distributed the ball much better, combining for only 22 shot attempts and nine assists. Vital had 15 points, five assists, and three steals. Gilbert hit a huge jumper with 1:27 left to give UConn a three-point lead.

“We knew everything we did wrong (on Wednesday),” Gilbert said. “We didn’t panic. We went back to the drawing board to fix everything. We were ready today.”

The Gators had one last chance to tie, but Keyontae Johnson, three-of-six on the year on three-point attempts, mysteriously passed up a wide-open three in the final seconds and Vital stole his pass and dribbled out the clock. Gampel erupted like it was 2013 again.

After the game, Hurley was doused in Gatorade by his team in a loud locker room celebration. Compared to Wednesday, it was a tale of two liquids.

“There was liquid in the locker room both (games),” joked Hurley. “Wednesday it was tears and today it was Gatorade cups on my head and on Tom’s slick-back hair (assistant coach Tom Moore). It was like a morgue when you went in there the other day. It felt like somebody ripped your guts out.

“Life happens for you, not to you. If you get back in the fight, and fix the things you failed at, you learn from it. Like in life, in sports, there’s always another opportunity for you.”

And that opportunity for the Huskies resulted in the Gampel moment they were striving for – not just for Polley, but the whole team.

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