UConn celebrates Senior Night by upsetting No. 21 Houston
Storrs — Energized by a raucous full house and feeding off the emotions of Senior Night, UConn rode a spirited effort to its best victory in recent years.
The Huskies first wobbled and then dropped No. 21 Houston, 77-71, to extend their unbeaten streak to a season-high four straight. They beat a ranked team for the second in six tries this season.
“Houston is an extremely good team,” senior Christian Vital said. “I just think we were better tonight. I think we’re finally starting to figure it out and it showed.
“… I’m not going to lie, it meant a lot. Everything the program has been through, some of my teammates have been through and some of the stuff that I’ve been through personally, to be able to win like that in front of a crowd like that on a night like this, it meant a lot.
“I’ll remember it for a long time.”
Vital had a monster performance in his final regular season home game, making nearly every big play down the stretch while continuing to play like an AAC player of the year candidate. He had 19 of his game-high 26 points in the second half to help his team overcome a seven-point halftime deficit.
After the game, Vital addressed the happy crowd from mid-court with his teammates and coaches looking on.
“We’ve had a lot of ups and downs these past two years but what we did this year is special,” Vital said. “We’re not done yet, though. We’re not done yet.”
The Cougars (22-8, 12-5) had won seven of the last eight meetings in the series, including 63-59 on Jan. 23.
But the night belonged to the Huskies who are looking more like a postseason team every game. They shot 50 percent from the field against one of the top defensive teams in the AAC, committed only 10 turnovers and limited the Cougars to 36.6 percent.
“It’s an honor to play and defeat a team like Houston,” coach Dan Hurley said. “They’re an outstanding program, one of the best in the country with one the best coaches and some of the best players. To beat them, you damn near got to kill them.
“... We’re a good team that’s finally learned how to win.”
Vital, junior Isaiah Whaley (13 points, five rebounds) and freshman James Bouknight (17 points, seven rebounds), UConn’s three most productive players in recent weeks, led the charge.
They’ve now knocked off the top three teams in the American Athletic Conference this season, also defeating Tulsa and Cincinnati. They improved to 18-12 overall, 9-8 in the league.
“A win like this, it means a lot,” Whaley said. “It gives us hope. It gives us something to keep fighting for.”
It was a 40-minute thrill ride as both teams fiercely battled for control of the game.
Things got really interesting after Vital’s 3-pointer forged a 41-41 tie with 16:17 left.
The crowd roared when Alterique Gilbert (nine points), who earned the start on his Senior Night, carved up the defense with a fancy move and scored for a 49-47 lead with 10:58 left. His playing status was a game-time decision due to back spasms.
But Bouknight picked up his fourth foul with 7:24 left. His fast break basket set up by Vital’s steal had just handed the Huskies a 56-53 edge.
Then Vital took over the game.
He stole the ball and scored on a fast-break layup. Then he hit a short pull-up jumper. His defensive rebound led to freshman Jalen Gaffney’s transition basket, extending UConn’s run to 11-0 and lead to 62-53 lead with 4:54 remaining.
“He wasn’t going to let us lose, especially toward the end…,” Whaley said. “He demanded the ball.”
The Huskies held on from there.
It didn’t look good for the Huskies at halftime, trailing 37-30.
Entering the game, they had gone 0-24 while trailing at halftime in Hurley’s two seasons in Storrs.
They faced a deficit despite bolting on an impressive 16-0 run after falling behind 5-0. Their active defense held the Cougars without a point for seven minutes, 13 seconds.
Houston, which is fighting for the AAC regular season title, responded. The Cougars eventually finished the half with a 7-0 run to break a tie and seize the lead at the break.
UConn quickly erased that deficit to start the second, setting the stage for a fantastic finish.
Only one game remains on the regular season schedule for the Huskies who visit last-place Tulane on Sunday. With a win, they can finish with a winning league record for the first time since going 11-7 in 2015-16.
“It definitely gives us a confidence-booster,” Gilbert said of Thursday’s win. “But we just want to stay focused, finish this last game out and then just get ready for the conference tournament.”
News and notes
Hurley on the crowd: “What an incredible atmosphere. I knew we were in for a special night when I entered the arena an hour and 20 minutes before the game and saw the student section completely full.” … Vital moved into 10th place on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,707 points, passing former teammate Jalen Adams. “I’ve had a lot of respect for him since he was a freshman,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said. “He’s a tough kid.” … Vital, Gilbert, walk-on Temi Aiyegbusi, student assistant coach Mamadou Diarra and graduate head managers Justin Eaddy and Paul Wettemann were honored during the Senior Night ceremony. … Redshirt sophomore Sid Wilson returned to action after being suspended for one game. He played four scoreless minutes.