When UConn’s star freshman went down, it was two unassuming seniors picking the Huskies up.
Staring at the very real possibility of heading to the Maui Invitational with an 0-3 record, Kentan Facey and Amida Brimah rallied the Huskies to a 65-62 win over Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, California on Thursday night. Shorthanded because of a shoulder injury to Alterique Gilbert, it was the two big men giving UConn the boost it desperately needed coming off two disappointing losses at Gampel Pavilion to open the season.
The two senior bigs combined to score 16 points but more importantly hauled in 16 rebounds, seven on the offensive end. The Huskies won the rebounding battle, 38-34, and outscored Loyola in the paint, 30-22, holding a 10-7 edge in second-chance points.
Gilbert suffered what is being reported as a dislocated left shoulder late in the first half. The freshman point guard had 10 points and 2 assists, helping the Huskies build a double-digit lead early in the first half. But with 1:51 to go, Gilbert was tied up and rolled on by a Lions defender, crashing onto the same shoulder he injured as a senior in high school, which he had undergone surgery for earlier this year.
After Gilbert’s painful departure, the Huskies were disjointed and sloppy, going into the half tied at 34-34.
The Lions led by as many as six in the second half but with 3:33 to play freshman Christian Vital buried a three to give UConn a 61-60 lead. Following a pair of Loyola free throws, a Terry Larrier layup gave the Huskies the lead again, 63-62, with 2:22 left. A pair of Jalen Adams free throws with 20 seconds to go sealed UConn’s first victory of the season.
Brimah had four blocks to go along with his season-high 10 rebounds, far more assertive on the glass than in the previous two games. Facey, producing little in limited minutes so far, had his best game of the year, grabbing three offensive boards, knocking down some big free throws in the second half.
Larrier again led the team in scoring with 14 points on 6-of-12 shooting, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out three assists. Vital, who was a game-time decision with back spasms, was the only UConn player to hit more than one three (3-of-8), hitting two big-time shots in the second half. He could be a player who gives UConn a spark in the back court.
Rodney Purvis struggled again, going 2-of-9 from the field including 0 for 6 from three. With Gilbert sidelined, head coach Kevin Ollie didn’t have many other options but to keep rolling an ineffective Purvis out there. Adams’ performance was up-and-down, scoring nine points to go along with five assists but also committing five turnovers.
UConn once again struggled against the zone defense, shooting 6-of-23 from three and not helping themselves any by struggling at the free-throw line, where it went 13-of-22. But the ball movement was better—the Huskies had 15 assists on 23 made baskets.
The intensity provided by Brimah and Facey needs to continue and someone needs to step up in the back court, particularly if Gilbert may be out for a while. Purvis needs to stop settling for shots on the perimeter and start using his athleticism to take the ball to the paint. UConn still has a lot to fix, and for this game to be this close still does not bode well for the state of the team.
The Huskies prepare to open the Maui Invitational against Oklahoma State. Tip-off is at 9 p.m. on Monday, November 21.