UConn men beat No. 15 Florida

Storrs — The joyful sounds of a rowdy postgame locker room celebration carried down the Gampel Pavilion hallway on Sunday.

The crazy happy Huskies doused coach Dan Hurley and his assistant coaches with water.

UConn scored the upset victory, 62-59 over No. 15 Florida, it so desperately craved and needed, feeding off the energy of a loud sellout crowd.

"It feels great," redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert said. "These are the games that you come to UConn for. It's great for us to pull it out."

It took a heavy dose of grit and toughness for the Huskies (2-1) to pull off their first win over a ranked team in Storrs since beating No. 15 Florida in 2013. They never trailed in the second half but needed to make winning plays down the stretch to hold off the Gators (2-2).

Senior Christian Vital sealed the win with a steal with six seconds left after Gilbert deflected a pass and then dribbled out the final seconds. Prior to Vital's steal, Florida's Andrew Nembhard missed a short jumper in the lane. Vital's two pressure-packed free throws with 17.3 seconds left extended the lead to three.

"We all fought," said Vital who hit two clutch free throws with 17.3 seconds left to extend the lead to three. "Everyone stepped up. If one person didn't do something that they did today, I don't think we win this game."

It was a total team effort.

Vital and junior Tyler Polley each scored 15 points while junior Josh Carlton chipped in 13 points and eight rebounds and Gilbert added 10 points with four assists. Junior Isaiah Whaley came off the bench to contribute seven points and six rebounds. Redshirt freshman Akok Akok didn't score but had eight rebounds and blocked two shots.

Just last Wednesday, the Huskies shed tears of disappointment in the locker room following an ugly loss to Saint Joseph's. Their defense was riddled for 96 points. Their spirits were low.

The mood was entirely different on Sunday.

"There was liquid in both locker rooms," Hurley said. "On Wednesday, it was tears. Today, it was Gatorade cups (of water) on my head and on (assistant coach) Tom Moore's slick back hair. There was crying the other day. It was like a morgue. ... You feel like somebody ripped your guts out."

What happened the days after that loss led to UConn's upset win on Sunday. The Huskies regrouped and practiced with a renewed purpose and a sense of urgency.

The veteran duo of Vital and Gilbert provided valuable leadership and a steadying influence. They vowed to get their teammates involved and then they did just that on Sunday.

"I felt like we won the game on Thursday, won the game on Friday, won the game on Saturday and shoot-around today just with their approach," Hurley said. "Accountability and ownership on their part. Ownership on our part as coaches. ... We all just looked in the mirror and made sure that we would give ourselves a chance to win by the way we were going to prepare and by being self-aware of the things we all did to contribute to Wednesday's game.

"Thrilled with the win."

The Huskies responded with an inspired effort.

They played with great energy and didn't blink when they got off to a slow offensive start, missing their first five shots and committing five turnovers before finally scoring. Vital scored seven points to fuel an 11-0 run to lift the Huskies in front, 11-6.

Leading 25-20 at halftime, UConn remained composed and answered every challenge.

After Florida star Kerry Blackshear (15 points, eight rebounds) buried a three to tie the game at 29, Polley drilled two straight three-pointers to give the Huskies the lead for good. Blackshear fouled out with 4:37 remaining.

The Huskies saw an eight-point lead shrink to one four times, including on Keyontae Johnson's basket with 1:06 remaining.

But UConn continued to make big plays until the final buzzer of the fiercely competitive but messy offensive game. Neither team led by more than eight points.

"Toughness, that was the word today," Gilbert said. "It shows our maturity as a team. A year ago, we would have folded easily. We've got a great group of guys who really want to win and buy into everything we're doing."

The Huskies shot just 35.6 percent from the field but took care of the ball, committing just nine turnovers, only one in the second half. An active defense limited the Gators to 40 percent.

"We just got after it," Hurley said. "Just thought we played really, really hard. That was a physical game. You take shooting efficiency and shooting percentages out. That was like will to win type of game. Our guys showed incredible will."

The marquee win — UConn's first at home against a ranked  team since knocking off SMU at the XL Center in February of 2016 — healed some wounds from Wednesday's loss and gave the Huskies hope for the rest of the season.

g.keefe@theday.com

 


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