It’s been almost five years since Shabazz Napier’s jump shot heard around the world. A lot has happened to UConn men’s basketball since then, for better or worse. It wasn’t the same buzzer-beating heroics tonight, but the UConn men’s basketball team knocked off No. 15 Florida 62-59 Sunday night and improved to 2-1 on the young season. After a humiliating loss to St. Joe’s, it was a gritty bounce-back dub for the Huskies, who looked markedly different in terms of toughness, rebounding, and clutch shooting.
Christian Vital and Tyler Polley paced UConn with 15 apiece, with Josh Carlton adding 13 and Alterique Gilbert chipping in 10. Prior to this big win, UConn was 1-16 vs. AP top 25 opponents in the past five years.
UConn’s first play of the game was a botched lob to Akok Akok, and it looked like the nightmare from Wednesday was rearing its ugly head. UConn went roughly the first seven minutes without a bucket, keeping Gampel fans on their feet wondering if the season was already a moot point. Luckily, defensive intensity on the other end kept things reasonable.
The Huskies emphasized getting Carlton the ball down on the block, but Florida was quick to double, and his decision making out of the post left a lot to be desired. Eventually, UConn’s defensive energy led to easy baskets, and UConn was right there despite the sluggish start.
Up 11-6, Florida switched to a 1-3-1 on defense and started feeding graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr. more to greater success. But overall, both teams struggled to get much going in terms of momentum. Some quarter-court pressure seemed to speed up Florida’s guards, and the Huskies were able to generate some decent looks.
Toward the end of the half, UConn started to find success on high screens, with Whaley and Carlson both recipients of easy baskets on rolls. Thanks to great ball pressure, the Huskies went into the half up five, despite both teams setting the game of basketball back thirty years.
UConn did a great job running the Gators off the three point line, forcing Florida to shoot nine percent from downtown. Tim Tebow probably could have shot better from three for the Gators. Part of Florida’s struggles early year has been an inefficient offense, and UConn’s defensive intensity looked night and day compared to its St. Joe’s debacle. But overall, both teams shot a putrid 8-26 and 9-27 from the field respectively, with UConn’s nine points off turnovers the big difference-maker, with the Huskies heading into halftime up 25-20.
The second half started out as the Tyler Polley show, and the Gampel crowd responded in kind. The junior scored eight-straight points, with a big pull-up three capping off a nice block from Akok Akok. The defensive intensity from the first half carried over too, with UConn playing the passing lanes well — something Hurley stressed at the half —- and getting deflections all over the court.
UConn got into the paint with ease, and a more composed Alterique Gilbert did wonders for the team on the offensive end. Timely gang rebounds and scrappy hustle kept Florida from taking the lead, and with seven to play, UConn was in control a six point lead.
With about three to play, Florida cut it to one, and it looked like UConn was stuck in what has become one of its trademark lulls. But with Blackshear Jr. —who fouled out with 4:36 left — on the bench, Carlton took advantage inside and driving lanes opened up. It was a one possession game from there on out, and an improved rebounding presence put UConn up 62-59 after Vital converted a pair of free throws. Florida went straight to the hole for a quick two, and the ensuing kick-out was picked off by Vital.
Florida at the moment does not look deserving of its current ranking. But the Gators are talented nonetheless, and it’s not hyperbole to say UConn’s season was in jeopardy heading into today after the St. Joe’s result. The Huskies turned things up on the defensive end and were composed enough on offense to pull off the upset in front of a great crowd at Gampel. Next up, UConn heads down south for the Charleston Classic. The first game will be Thursday at 9 p.m. against Buffalo.