UConn men’s basketball team entered Wednesday night’s game against the Temple Owls on a four-game losing streak. They responded in a big way with a 78-63 victory to improve to 11-9 and 2-5 in the American Athletic Conference (AAC).
With redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert out due to personal reasons and redshirt sophomore Sidney Wilson sidelined with a sore knee, UConn was missing two key players. But they turned in a balanced effort on both sides of the court and it showed. Six out of UConn’s seven available scholarship players finished in double-digit scoring, led by 15 from senior Christian Vital.
The one player who didn’t, freshman Jalen Gaffney — in his first career start at point guard — ran the show with nine points, five assists, and two turnovers. Fellow freshman Akok Akok turned in an impressive 10 points, five rebounds, and four blocks. He leads the AAC in blocks with three per game. James Bouknight dropped a tremendous dunk on his way to 12 points and six rebounds. The future is bright folks.
The Huskies jumped out to a 12-4 lead thanks to some Josh Carlton layups and back-to-back threes from Gaffney and Akok. UConn’s ball pressure forced Temple out of its offensive flow early, and the Huskies took a 10-point lead after a four-point play from Vital.
Isiah Whaley continued to flash on the defensive end with solid pick-and-roll defense and two blocks. UConn forced eight turnovers in the first 11 minutes, and the Owls didn’t cross double-digits until 7:23 left in the first half. All was well.
Even though shots weren’t falling, UConn made the right plays. For example: Temple switched to zone, Vital clanged out a wide-open three, and the the Owls were on the break off the long miss. Vital hustled back, stole the pass, and pushed the tempo for a James Bouknight lob and slam to send Gampel into pandemonium.
Another example: Akok Akok was put on a poster by an absolutely vicious slam from Nate Pierre-Louis. Undeterred by the highlight play, he swatted away two back-to-back looks just a few minutes later.
Overall, it was as well-balanced a half as UConn’s had this season, with all seven players entering the scoring column. UConn held Temple to 9-28 shooting from the field and, paced by 12 fast break points, went into the break up 15.
Even with Temple showing a three-quarter press to start the second half, UConn passed out of it effectively for easy looks and generally moved the ball well all night. The Huskies opened up a 20 point lead just three minutes into the second half, a scary amount of time for a team with glaring consistency issues.
UConn built up its lead with improved ball movement and aggression. A steal leading to that thunderous slam from Bouknight, followed by another steal from Whaley in the Temple backcourt (he’s gotten so good at hedging high ball screens) had head coach Dan Hurley pumping up an already raucous Gampel crowd.
There would be no concentration lapses or letdown this night, as the walk-ons took the court at 1:50 left with UConn up 19.
While this was a great performance for Dan Hurley’s squad under the circumstances, this is a struggling Temple team that limped into this game on a three-game losing streak of its own. But for what it’s worth, going into today UConn ranked 350/353 in Ken Pomeroy’s Luck Rating. They haven’t really gotten many breaks, and losing the past three conference games by a combined 11 points with two overtime losses must have been excruciating for that locker room.
This is good for morale even with that grain of salt.
Shorthanded and facing a Temple team ranked No. 27 in the country in defensive efficiency, the recipe was there for another disappointment. But remember; hidden beneath those four straight losses was a lot of encouraging play up and down the roster. The Huskies were finally able to convert all of that optimism into a win. And not just a win, but a blowout. After those brutal losses, it was probably cathartic for this young UConn team to see this game over the line and close it out.
They’ll look to build on it on Saturday when the Huskies head to Memphis to take on the Tigers at 1 p.m. ET, on ESPN.