UConn beats USF on another wild day in Storrs
STORRS – The play of the game was fitting – Christian Vital, UConn’s senior leader, taking the shot, and James Bouknight, the present and future of the program, following the miss with yet another highlight reel dunk, this one by catching the ball and dunking it in one motion with just his right hand.
It was a somewhat symbolic passing of the torch, with the fighting Huskies outlasting USF, 78-71, at Gampel Pavilion. The Huskies, now 15-12 and inching closer to earning at least an NIT bid, blew an 11-point lead, but kept their composure.
Vital, in his final days at UConn, scored 24 points and became the AAC’s all-time leading three-point shooter in the process with 253. He also threw down a vicious dunk in transition in the second half, firing up the crowd of 9,524. Bouknight only played 15:41 and just 4:34 in the first half due to foul trouble. That hardly fazed the freshman. He still finished with 19 points on 6-of-7 shooting (5-of-5 from the foul line), with 16 coming in the final 11 minutes.
In addition to his spectacular dunk, he added a lay-up and floater in the final 1:37 to seal the win. Both players are from New York and played for the same AAU program. Their chemistry on the court has come relatively easy, with some competitive moments along the way.
“When me and him are out there, we try to be a dynamic duo type,” Bouknight said. “When I came back in during the second half, he said it was a little harder without me.
“We’ve known each even before I got here,” he continued. “When I came on my visit, we built an immediate bound. We’re eye-to-eye, we know each other’s games. We’ve fought a couple of times in practice, we’re always yelling at each other. (But) we’re both going to play hard and try to win the game.”
Noted Vital, “That’s my little brother. From day one, from his visit, we were on the same page. We’re comfortable and play well off each other.”
Meanwhile, in a season full of storylines, this day wasn’t short of drama for the Huskies. The night before the game, coach Dan Hurley was served a subpoena at his home from former coach Kevin Ollie’s legal team, requesting he testify in Ollie’s arbitration hearing against the school. Ollie and the school are in a heated fight over the $10-million dollars that remained on his contract at the time of his termination.
Ollie’s legal team wants to clarify if Hurley was contacted to become the coach prior to Ollie’s firing, which came right after UConn was eliminated in the first round of the 2017-18 AAC Tournament. Hurley was coaching Rhode Island at the time and led the Rams into the NCAA Tournament.
UConn came out aggressive, releasing a scathing statement against Ollie and his representation, first noting how they came to an agreement for all subpoenas to be issued at the school and not at the homes of those requested. The school also was disturbed about the leaks of the subpoena to the news media.
Regarding the timing of Hurley’s hiring, this was the school’s response: “Coach Hurley was hired after Ollie was terminated and had nothing to do with Ollie’s separation from the program or the numerous NCAA violations that led to it, nor does he have any role at all in the ongoing legal dispute that followed. The university is dismayed by this attempt on the part of Ollie’s legal team to involve Coach Hurley in this matter. Coach Hurley, his staff and their players are working incredibly hard and they should not have to contend with this kind of needless distraction.”
After his postgame press conference, Hurley declined comment on the matter. He seemed incredibly annoyed by the situation.
For the program, it was another crazy day in a season full of wild developments, which includes a slew of close games, the emergence of Bouknight, devastating injuries to Tyler Polley and Akok Akok, and a re-energized fan base filling the seats and bringing an atmosphere to home games not seen in several seasons.
While Hurley was not thrilled with the subpoena, he was with his team and supporters. This is what he envisioned when taking over for Ollie. In addition to Vital and Bouknight’s dazzling stat-lines, Isaiah Whaley continues to fill-in admirably for Akok, blocking four more shots. In almost 37 minutes, freshman point guard Jalen Gaffney continues to improve, netting 10 points and was a plus-9. And Brendan Adams came off the bench to score 10.
“Our fans here are incredible,” Hurley said. “There’s not many fan bases in the country that would show up the way they have showed up for us this year. To be a near-sellout and to have that type of atmosphere for a game that you came in 14-12 and the opponent came in 11-15, speaks to how incredible the fan base is. It also speaks to the group of young players, the group of older players and how they’ve won over the support with the incredible determination and character and effort. It’s obviously must-see TV to see how our games will end.
“We’re a fun team to watch. They see what’s building here.”
UConn has four games left before the AAC Tournament – if you look away, you will probably miss something notable.