Excellent first-half shooting and a monster game from Christian Vital carried the Huskies to victory as UConn beat South Florida 80-73 in the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Thursday afternoon.
Vital scored 25 points after converting all of his first-half attempts, leading all players in scoring, and carrying the team after Jalen Adams fouled out with five minutes left. Vital accounted for six of the Huskies’ season-high 13 threes, as they shot .542 from deep as a team.
With Alterique Gilbert missing the tournament due to injury, the Huskies were still shorthanded, but two other veteran point guards filled his place. Adams scored 19 points and tied for the team lead with six rebounds, while Tarin Smith’s 14 points represented his highest-scoring game since mid-December.
The Bulls got off to a hot start. The only thing preventing them from a big opening run was Smith, who scored the Huskies’ first seven points. A traditional point guard, the grad transfer went against his instincts to take so many shots, but he stepped up when the team was in need of an offensive leader.
Adams then took control for a while, tying the game at 16 after hitting three straight treys before UConn took its first lead of the game on an Isaiah Whaley putback. The first half was a game of individual runs for the Huskies, exemplified by Vital hitting a pair of threes after Adams took to the bench to get some rest.
Smith and Vital stayed hot, as the Huskies went on a 24-3 run in the middle of the opening frame, with Vital hitting multiple bombs to push the Huskies to a first-half lead that got as high as 18. UConn shot 9-14 from three (Vital and Smith made all of their six combined attempts) en route to a 39-26 halftime lead. UConn’s shooting may have been unsustainably high, but the Huskies’ play was good enough on its own to give them a big lead.
The UConn defense faltered a bit early in the second half, but the scoring remained efficient enough to keep extending the lead. The Huskies began to get into foul trouble during this section, with violations adding up for Whaley, Adams, and Josh Carlton, the first two of whom were called for their fourth fouls with over nine minutes to go.
Vital stayed red hot when the team was in danger of slumping, giving UConn the offensive boost it needed when Adams was on the bench and other players went cold. Despite an inconsistent defense that fouled far too often, the Huskies’ scoring outpaced the Bulls’ for the bulk of the second half.
But with fouls adding up, the Huskies went cold as a team, allowing USF to cut the lead to seven with two minutes to play. Over the next minute, Smith missed three free throws, allowing USF to get back to six points, but an excellent press break led to an easy layup for Sidney Wilson, meaning David Collins’ three—after several misses—brought the Bulls only within five points.
Vital and Wilson hit pairs of free throws over the ensuing possessions, keeping a buffer between the two teams. When South Florida turned the ball over with 15 seconds left, the Huskies were able to run the clock out.
Laquincy Rideau led the Bulls with 19 points and seven assists, and David Collins finished with an inefficient 15 on 6-15 shooting. Mayan Kiir blocked four shots in a strong defensive performance.
Due to foul trouble, Carlton was held to zero points for only the second time of the season, but made a positive impact on defense in his limited minutes with four blocks and six rebounds. Whaley was the bench’s high scorer with eight.
UConn faces top-seeded Houston in the quarterfinals of the AAC Tournament on Friday at noon (Eastern). In the only meeting between those teams this season, the Cougars defeated the Huskies by eight in Hartford in February, but UConn played without both Adams and Gilbert.