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Vital's late free throws lift Huskies over Syracuse at MSG

POSTED December 07, 2016
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia

NEW YORK – Christian Vital’s homecoming game at Madison Square Garden had been, to be blunt, a disaster for the first 39:58 against Syracuse Monday night.

The New York native and UConn freshman guard missed all six of his field goal attempts, including four three-pointers and a wide open lay-up in transition. He also committed two turnovers and had only two rebounds in 28 minutes.

But, when it came down to the most critical juncture of the game, it was Vital who pushed aside any frustration and helped the Huskies seal an important win in which they came back from 11 points down in the second half.

How it happened: After UConn squandered a last minute lead due to its ineptitude at the foul line, Rodney Purvis raced up the court and missed a long jumper which barely grazed the rim. Vital, who stands at only 6-foot-2, snuck inside and grabbed the rebound. He quickly went up for a shot and was hit in the hand by Tyler Lydon and drew a foul call. Two free throws and a chance to break a tie score with 2.2 seconds left. Jim Boeheim called time out in an attempt to rattle the freshman. The strategy backfired.

''I definitely had a lot of nerves going to the line, but the timeout they called helped me out a lot,'' said Vital, who calmly and easily sank both shots to give UConn a much-needed 52-50 victory. ''A lot of our veteran guys talked to me during the timeout and they said `Listen, we're in your city. Take us home.' And I was able to do that.''

“He’s one of the toughest players were have,” added UConn coach Kevin Ollie. “I know what I’m going to get from him. He plays with aggression, he plays with confidence. For him to get that offensive rebound and go up and get fouled and shoot those free throws showed his resiliency. He knocked those down like he was a fifth-year senior. I really respect that.”

UConn’s struggles, thanks to three season-ending injuries and wildly inconsistent play, have been well-documented. Those issues did not go away by any measure Monday, as it shot 31 percent along with an ugly 13-of-23 percentage at the foul line, highlighted by five misses in the final minute while trying to seal the win. However, thanks to a ferocious defensive effort, especially in the zone set (Syracuse only shot 26 percent with Lydon, Andrew White III and Frank Howard combining to shoot 5-of-31), the Huskies were able to escape New York triumphantly.

''Once again it wasn't the most beautiful basketball game from an offensive standpoint, but I thought the defense was great,'' Ollie said. ''Some new growth was made today.''

 On the game-deciding play, the Syracuse contingent of the 15,347 on hand were livid the whistle was blown, despite replays showing clear contact by Lydon on Vital on the follow-through.

“I got fouled,” laughed Vital after the game. “It was the right call.”

Boeheim had little reaction, noting: “I didn’t see it. I know nothing about it.”

With only eight scholarship players, it’s very important for UConn to sustain its energy, which wasn’t a problem in front of a charged up crowd inside MSG. Kentan Facey overcame illness and had a very strong game, finishing with seven points and 13 rebounds. Every time it seemed the Orange were about to pull away, Purvis responded with big shots and he recorded a game-high 21 points and five three-pointers. Jalen Adams added 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists.

Meanwhile, UConn’s youth struggled. Along with Vital’s 0-for-6, Steven Enoch and Vance Jackson combined to shoot 0-for-10 with zero points. Juwan Durham did add two jumpers in the first half.

At 4-4, with one of those wins coming against a Division II team, it’s no secret the Huskies are starring at a long-shot to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. This game was not only crucial in the standings, though. Its postseason atmosphere will also help the younger players acclimate to the potential raucous environments they will come across.

Their first dose of the UConn-Syracuse rivalry was similar to some of the prior classic battles in the series. The building was loud and the players, it seemed, even gave more effort than usual.

“I tell them to keep fighting through (their struggles), to keep pushing,” Ollie said. “This was another one of these epic Syracuse-UConn matchups and I’m glad we were able to come out on the winning side.”

That it was. And thanks to Vital being in the right place at the right time, UConn recorded a win it desperately needed.

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