UConn snaps four-game losing streak
Storrs — Adversity has been UConn’s regular companion in recent weeks.
First, starting forward Tyler Polley went down with a season-ending knee injury earlier this month.
In the latest setback, the Huskies played without starter Alterique Gilbert and reserve Sidney Wilson on Wednesday against Temple at Gampel Pavilion. Wilson sat out with a right knee contusion and Gilbert was sidelined for personal reasons.
"It just looks like everything is stacked against you," coach Dan Hurley said.
Left with only seven scholarship players, shorthanded UConn shook off the adversity and beat Temple, 78-63, in American Athletic Conference action.
It was a desperately needed win for the Huskies (11-9, 2-5), who had dropped four straight by six points or less. And a rare comfortable one, too, as they posted their largest margin of victory in a month. They beat NJIT by 22 on Dec. 29.
"We had an opportunity with everything that's been swirling around just with injuries especially and the close losses, we showed the character, the toughness, the identity that we're building as a program here....," Hurley said. "Just really proud of the guys the way they handled everything. They compartmentalized what they needed to do tonight and just locked in."
They overcame their offensive struggles by digging in on defense and going 28 for 30 from the foul line. They shot just 35.5 percent but limited Temple (10-10, 2-6) to 39.7 percent and turned 16 turnovers in 20 points. The Owls (10-10, 2-6) have lost seven of eight. They also limited their mistakes, committing 10 turnovers.
"It was pretty tough losing Al, Sid and Tyler, too, not having those guys," redshirt freshman Akok Akok said. "We had to play smart defensively, not pick up a lot fouls, run our stuff offensively and not turn the ball over. It was a lot of pressure but we just had to not fold at the end."
For the first time since March 2016 in a four overtime win over Cincinnati, the Huskies had six players score in double figures, including senior Christian Vital who had 15 points to go with 10 rebounds, four assists and four steals. Freshman James Bouknight and sophomore Brendan Adams had 12 points apiece while Akok and juniors Josh Carlton and Isaiah Whaley each added 10.
"We knew what was at stake," Vital said. "We know we still have a lot of season left. There's no need to jump off the ship. But we know we needed this. Everyone stepped up. It was a great team win."
In his first start, freshman Jalen Gaffney provided a calming influence, finishing with nine points, five assists and two turnovers in a career-high 36 minutes.
The Huskies turned a 15-point halftime lead into 20 (43-23) on Carlton’s two free throws with 17:12 left.
Their active defense continued to hound Temple into mistakes. Bouknight stole the ball and soared in for a dunk for a 53-31 lead with 11:22 remaining. Hurley enjoyed it as much as the freshman guard, waving his arms to encourage the cheering crowd.
The Huskies maintained a comfortable double digit edge and led by as many as 24.
There were several encouraging signs early.
Carlton scored his team’s first four points after going scoreless in two straight games for the first time in his career.
Also, Gaffney buried his first shot, a 3-pointer, to help fuel a fast start for the Huskies, who surged to a 12-4 lead. They extended their run to 20-4, building a 24-8 advantage. The Owls had four field goals eight turnovers at that point.
"We were just ready to play from the beginning," Vital said.
The lead grew to as many as 18 before UConn took a 36-21 edge into the break. All the available scholarship players cracked the scoring column.
The game was bound to be a bit ugly offensively with two of the worst shooting teams in the AAC competing. Temple ranked last at 40.2 percent, UConn ninth at 41.8.
UConn started the game with three first-year players — Gaffney, Bouknight and Akok.
"To have three freshmen out there starting and playing the minutes that they played, it's just very encouraging how they handled it," Hurley said.
It was the first time that Gilbert missed a game this season. While he was on campus Wednesday, he didn’t attend the game.
"He missed the game for personal reasons and we'll just continue to deal with that moving forward here," Hurley said. "But I don't have anything else to say about that."
Hurley also is unsure when Wilson will be back, saying that the redshirt sophomore forward is out indefinitely. Wilson suffered his injury in Sunday's loss to Tulsa.
"I hope it's just a couple games," Hurley said
Wilson’s role has increased since the loss of Polley. He’s averaged 7.3 points and 3.5 rebounds in the last four games.
UConn's next game is Saturday at Memphis.
Before the game, there was a 24-second moment of silence in remembrance of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna, who both passed away along with seven others Sunday in a helicopter accident.