UConn men beat Memphis, lose Akok to injury

Hartford — On a day filled with a wide range of emotions, UConn dug deep to find a way to secure a significant win.

It wasn't easy after watching redshirt freshman Akok Akok suffer a torn Achilles injury that likely ended his season just a minute into Sunday's American Athletic Conference game.

The Huskies were stunned to see their fallen teammate lying on the court with pain etched across his face.

"When I initially found out what happened, it was hard to get over it," junior Isaiah Whaley said. "Everybody was shook up."

Eventually, the Huskies regrouped and jumped back into the fight. They fed off the vocal support of the program's first sell-out crowd at the XL Center in two years and grabbed an emotional 64-61 win over Memphis.

Coach Dan Hurley fought back tears talking about Akok and his team's gritty performance.

"The fans were amazing," Hurley said. "Just proud of the way these guys fought and the character they showed. It was a big win, obviously. But there's no joy in it when something like that happens in the first minute.

"Sports is brutal sometimes. Life is brutal sometimes. Been through this before E.C. Matthews at Rhode Island and that guy came back and was amazing. Akok will come back from this and be that special player that he deserves to be and is destined to be. It's obviously an Achilles. We'll know more (Monday), but it doesn't look good."

The Huskies (14-11, 5-7) won for the third time in four games. The Tigers (17-8, 6-6) have dropped a season-high three straight.

They overcame Akok's absence and poor shooting (32 percent) from the field with heart, hustle and a fierce competitive spirit. And it helped that they made 18 of 20 free throws, including eight of nine in the final three plus minutes.

Senior Christian Vital (23 points, nine rebounds) and freshman James Bouknight (17 points, eight rebounds) carried the Huskies to the finish line, accounting for 29 of their team's 39 points in the second half. They went a combined 11 for 33 from the field but made 15 of 16 from the line.

"Coach Hurley is always instilling confidence in me," Bouknight said. "I had a tough first half and I couldn't really make any shots. He was just telling me that I was just a second half king. I just came out and played well."

Trailing for nearly the entire first 35 minutes, the Huskies surged in front with a 10-3 spurt. Bouknight hit a short pull-up jumper to hand them the lead for good at 52-50 with three minutes, 27 seconds left.

Then an active Vital made a steal and set up Bouknight for a breakaway dunk during which he drew a foul. The home crowd roared its approval.

Bouknight converted the free throw for a 3-point play and 55-50 edge with about three minutes left. The Huskies kept their poise, as Vital drained four free throws in the final 9.4 seconds to close out the win. He finished 10 for 10 from the line.

"We just hung in there with grit, determination and character," Hurley said.

Akok's injury happened when he landed after blocking a shot on UConn's first defensive possession of the game. He went down on the court and eventually was helped to the locker room.

Wearing a walking boot and relying on crutches, Akok, still wearing his uniform, returned to the bench later in the first half. In an emotional scene, he received a warm hug from Hurley.

"It meant a lot," Whaley said of Akok being on the bench. "It really showed that he really cared about the team. He really wanted this win. And we got the win for him. ... He loves everybody and everybody loves him."

Now down to eight healthy players, the Huskies will be short-handed in the frontcourt going forward. Akok, the AAC's leading shot blocker, has started all but one game this season at power forward. He'll have an MRI on Monday.

"I've never seen someone with this kid's work ethic," Hurley said. "He deserved better."

More responsibility will fall to Whaley, who replaced Akok and chipped in five points, seven rebounds and a career-high six blocks.

"Everyone has to step up," Vital said. "And that's what happened. ... It was a team effort."

g.keefe@theday.com

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