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UConn men’s basketball guts out a win over Memphis, 64-61

The Huskies rallied despite a poor start that included losing freshman Akok Akok due to injury.

Christian Vital led the way today with 23 points
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In front of a sellout crowd at the XL center that featured the likes of Shabazz Napier, Jalen Adams, and several promising recruits, the Huskies picked up a big win against the Memphis Tigers, 64-61. UConn improves to 14-11 on the season and 5-7 in the American Athletic Conference.

It was a gritty, emotional victory in the wake of a devastating Achilles injury to freshman Akok Akok. Despite Akok’s torn Achilles, the Huskies rallied and responded with a complete effort, led by senior Christian Vital (23 points, nine rebounds) and emerging star freshman James Bouknight (17 points, eight rebounds.)

Junior Josh Carlton logged a season-high 13 rebounds and Isaiah Whaley filled in admirably for Akok with six blocks and outstanding defense.

In just the first minute, Akok landed awkwardly after a block and had to be checked out by the trainers, taking the air out of a raucous XL Center. The shot-blocking freshman was helped to the locker room, couldn’t put any pressure on his left leg, and was quickly ruled out for the rest of the game.

But there was still a game to be played. Buckets on both ends were hard to come by, as both teams lived up to their defensive reputations. With Akok out, Precious Achiuwa — once a highly coveted UConn target — went to work, but the Tigers never led by more than seven.

At the under-four media timeout, UConn trailed by four, but had held Memphis to six straight empty possessions. The Huskies tied it up after a Carlton tip-in, and the energy came rushing back to the crowd in Hartford. UConn capped off a 10-3 run by taking its first lead since 2-0, and ended the half knotted at 25.

The Huskies fought their way back into the game by crashing the offensive glass (12) and forcing nine Memphis turnovers; 17 of UConn’s 25 first-half points came off either of turnovers or second-chance baskets. It wasn’t pretty, but after seeing a teammate go down with a terrible injury, the kids and Hurley deserve a lot of credit for coming together and maintaining their intensity, especially on the defensive end.

A quick note about Akok. ESPN cut to the freshman returning to the bench, and color commentators Adam Levine and Seth Greenberg spent a lot of time extolling the freshman’s virtues. Between Dan Hurley’s reaction to the injury, teammates (Vital) consoling an emotionally distraught Akok on the sideline, and Akok refusing to go to the hospital until the game was over, you can tell how much he means to the program, and how much he cares. Besides all of the promise he brought to UConn’s future on the court, off the court he is an incredibly well-spoken, high-character man, and you just have to wish the speediest of recoveries to the warrior.

Despite demonstrating improved patience on the offensive end, UConn came up empty on its first five possessions of the second half. But Memphis found itself in foul trouble, as UConn was in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Five straight Vital buckets knotted the game at 41 and brought out the U-C-O-N-N chants. The Huskies’ three-quarter pressure did a good job of getting Memphis out of its halfcourt execution, but Tiger sophomore Tyler Harris hit some big transition threes to keep UConn at bay.

UConn’s defense against Achiuwa was excellent. They doubled after his second dribble, and kept the downhill slasher from getting any separation. Yet for as good as UConn looked on defense, Memphis’ length and physicality resulted in a lot of missed layups and dropped passes on the other end.

UConn stretched it out to a five point lead after Vital — who was everywhere on defense today — stepped in front of a Memphis pass and saved it out of bounds. He outletted to a streaking Bouknight, who tomahawked it home for the and-one.

The game-changing play brought pandemonium to Hartford.

With a minute left, Bouknight followed up a missed Vital three, and all of a sudden UConn had a six-point lead — its largest of the game — with 54 ticks left. After having to claw back into so many games late, the shoe was finally on the other foot. UConn was in the position of defending its lead against a team trying to lengthen the game. Vital hit four clutch free throws to ice the game, despite Memphis’ execution making things interesting late.

You can’t say enough about the heart it took for those kids to respond to adversity the way they did. The next-man-up philosophy was undoubtedly spearheaded by Hurley and aided by the rowdy crowd, but it was the character of every one of those players who stepped up to get that win. And an extra kudos to team captain Vital, who put his body on the line time and time again.

The stats show a Husky team that struggled from the three (17%) and was its usual roller-coaster on offense, but won all of the hustle categories: rebounding, second-chance points, and forced turnovers. Losing Akok for the season is certainly a blow, but if the Huskies play the way they did today, they’re going to be a team nobody wants to see in the AAC Tournament.

There’s still more regular season to be played. Next up for UConn is a road game in Philly vs. Temple, on Thursday, Feb. 20 at 7 p.m. ET that will be televised on ESPN2.