Well, that was fun.
In its first game of the Charleston Classic, the UConn men’s basketball team dispatched Buffalo 79-68 in a dramatic, entertaining tilt that featured contributions from across the roster.
Sophomore Brendan Adams broke out with a career-high 20 points, with 14 of those coming in the second half. Senior Christian Vital added 14 in an impressive performance where he also grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out five assists. Junior Josh Carlton also had a double-double, finishing with 12 points and 10 boards while freshman Akok Akok sparked UConn early on his way to 11 points and five rebounds. Freshman James Bouknight made some noise his collegiate debut after being suspended for the first three games, adding eight points and six rebounds.
“They have good players in every spot,” Buffalo head coach Jim Whitesell said after the game.
A back-and-forth first half that was highlighted by Akok Akok’s emergence, and the Huskies built on the positives in the second half with arguably their most balanced basketball of this young season. Their lead never got bigger than single digits until the final seconds, but they never let Buffalo back to within three. The Huskies played really smart ball down the stretch to hang on for the win.
“It was a gritty performance,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “We look like a team of fighters and you can win a lot of games by competing like that.”
“Now we get a chance to play a top 20 team on a neutral site,” he added. “It’s exciting.”
Perhaps the only downside was redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert sprained his ankle in the first half and did not feature for the rest of the contest. He is likely to be out for the rest of this weekend.
Next up, UConn gets a crack at its future conference rival in Xavier Friday night on ESPNU. The Musketeers took care of Towson 73-51 earlier Thursday night.
It was the same starting five (Vital, Gilbert, Polley, Akok, Carlton) and the same type of start that has plagued this team all season. Two turnovers and two Buffalo dunks took the energy out of a strong UConn crowd that made the trip to Charleston. But the Huskies turned it around after Akok Akok nailed a jumper from the top of the key. Once Buffalo’s big Josh Mballa went to the bench after picking up an early foul, Akok really began to cook.
“It was just one of those games,” Akok said. “It comes out once in a while. I work on everything to have a game like this.”
The talented freshman was everywhere, snatching rebounds, blocking shots, and hitting reverse layups. His energy was infectious. At the first TV timeout, Buffalo’s early three-point shooting helped them build a 15-12 lead. They got it up to 19-12 at the under-12, as several UConn threes were rattling out.
Bouknight made his Husky debut at the 9:17 mark, joining Polley, Akok, Gaffney, and Wilson on the floor. He immediately made an impact, getting his hand on a few rebounds, assisting on a Polley three, and cleaning up a Gilbert miss.
“When I first got into the game, I definitely had the jitters,” the freshman from New York City said. “But I worked into it and got comfortable. I didn’t try to force anything.”
But the team’s transition defense started becoming an issue, with UConn struggling to stop Jayvon Graves on misses. The burly 6’2 200-pound guard bullied UConn’s undersized backcourt as Buffalo held on to a slim lead.
That is, until a Vital pass ahead to Adams found Akok for a lob and UConn tied things up at 32-32 with two minutes left. It was a fun half of basketball, with only 12 fouls between both sides, Buffalo and UConn drawing even in rebounding, and Akok Akok proving the hype was real with 11 first-half points. A path to victory was there if the Huskies could clean up their turnovers (10) and transition defense.
Brendan Adams replaced the injured Gilbert as a second half starter, and the sophomore responded with some big plays, including three freebies and a nice transition layup. After Tyler Polley picked up two quick fouls, Hurley went small, putting in Jalen Gaffney, who quickly notched his first collegiate bucket while appearing comfortable with the pace of the game as he ran the offense. UConn stretched its lead to six by the first media timeout.
With a younger lineup in, Buffalo started to get its bearings some, but UConn was always able to counter on the other end, including a pretty alley-oop to Bouknight from Gaffney.
Bouknight continued to flash high-level skills with his ability to create and rebound, helping UConn grow its lead to eight with nine minutes to play. Hurley switched to a bigger lineup, and the ball movement with Gaffney running the point looked smooth and purposeful. Defensively, the Huskies switched aggressively on defense and hunted for blocks without getting out of position. They were locked in.
A dreaded media timeout robbed UConn of the momentum it was rolling with, and the Bulls cut the Husky lead to three. That’s when Brendan Adams put the cherry on his breakout performance. He hit a clutch three to push the lead back up to six, closed out Buffalo’s best shooter on a wide-open three, and sunk two free throws to ice it.
Everything that UConn struggled with in the first half (turnovers, points in the paint, and bench help), the Huskies fixed in the second. UConn’s bench chipped in 24 points and bested Buffalo inside 24-20. For a team like Buffalo, who’s tallest player is 6’7, it’s inexcusable they’d outnumber UConn in points in the paint like they did in the first half. But give Hurley and his squad credit, they played much better in the second half with an added focus on pounding the ball inside to Carlton, who took advantage of his size advantage. Carlton made some big plays late, too. The only other critique is that UConn needs to do much better than the 12-of-21 they shot from the free-throw line.
Former Bulls head coach Nate Oats is now at Alabama, but his coaching DNA remains all over this current Buffalo team. They came in tonight second in the nation in three pointers made per game, but UConn held them to 21% from downtown and very few wide-open looks.
The big question going into today was which UConn team was going to show tonight? Would it be the tough, opportunistic squad that beat then-No. 15 Florida? Or would it be the lackadaisical, inconsistent group that stared down a 28-point deficit to Saint Joseph’s? Happy to report is was the former, with breakout performances from Adams and Akok and great stuff from the freshman duo of Bouknight and Gaffney.
- A neat little thing not seen often: the UConn players didn’t come out for their individual intros before today’s game. Instead, they remained interlocked as their name was called and went out as a unit. I’ve watched a lot of basketball in my life and can’t recall ever seeing that. It worked.
- In the post-game press conference, a UConn fan banged on the glass of the side wall and started the U-C-O-N-N chant, Hurley responded: “These people are crazy, man. Everything they said about this job was true.”