On Friday night, a thin UConn team got ever leaner after the school announced that redshirt sophomore Sidney Wilson was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. That gave the Huskies just seven scholarship players heading into their penultimate road game of the season against East Carolina.
But thanks to big games from Christian Vital, Isaiah Whaley and James Bouknight, the Huskies (17-12, 8-8 the American) made the most of their short-handed roster and cruised to an easy 84-63 win in Greenville, North Carolina.
Vital and Whaley paced UConn , who never trailed, from the very first minute. The duo scored the Huskies’ first 14 points as they opened up a 14-7 lead just over six minutes in.
Whaley once again strung together another strong performance, scoring 16 points with seven rebounds, one block, and a flashy assist late in the first half.
Isaiah Whaley now eligible for the Bob Cousy Award pic.twitter.com/Mwu1qfMcTc— tcf15 (@tcf_15) February 29, 2020
Between his finishing ability on offense and usual tenacity on defense and the glass, Whaley’s emergence has changed the entire trajectory of UConn’s season since the loss of Akok Akok earlier this month. Whaley’s improvement has allowed Dan Hurley and the Huskies to utilize more small but uber-athletic four guard lineups and has taken immense pressure of Josh Carlton, who is still in the midst of an up-and-down junior season.
With Whaley and Vital leading the way, UConn stretched their first half lead to as much as 14 points before taking a 12-point, 42-30 lead into halftime.
Jalen Gaffney played a big role in helping the Huskies stretch their lead early with a lob to Bouknight, who finished with a ferocious slam that highlighted Bouknight’s incredible skill and athleticism. After the feed to Bouknight, Gaffney drilled a 3-pointer on the next possession to make it 40-26 with 1:23 left in the half before ECU tacked on a bucket heading into halftime.
Outside of East Carolina’s J.J. Miles ejection early into the second half after picking up his second technical foul, the Pirates didn’t make any noise for the first eight minutes of the final half, unable to cut into the Huskies’ halftime lead. Vital did his part to keep that way, hitting big shots time after time and being his usual steady self from the free throw line.
The senior guard finished the day with 27 points, three short of his career high. Despite not reaching the 30-point mark, Vital put together arguably his best game of his final season at UConn, shooting 5-12 from the 3-point lines and adding six rebound and four steals.
ECU did show some signs of life with about 11 minutes left, rattling off an 8-2 run after a layup from Tristen Newton to cut UConn’s lead to 62-56 with 9:50 left to play. While the Huskies couldn’t get much going as the Pirates ripped off their roughly two-minute run, Vital and Bouknight got the team back on track.
Vital drilled a pair of pair throws after drawing a foul shooting a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to eight and from there, Bouknight took over.
The freshman drilled a three off another feed from Gaffney, grabbed a rebound on the other end and then knocked down a long jumper for five points in 19 seconds to stretch UConn’s lead back to 12 and put the game away. After another pair of Vital free throws, Bouknight found Whaley, who played sparingly in the second due to foul trouble, for a layup to make it 74-59 with 6:16 left.
Even though he had an eye-popping dunk the first half, Bouknight once again came through in the final 20 minutes to put the game away, scoring 13 of his 19 points in the second half. He finished the day with a double-double, adding 10 rebounds and four assists.
From there on out, UConn kept growing the lead, stretching it to 21 with a 3-pointer from Brendan Adams with 43 seconds left.
While beating ECU is always more of an expectation than an accomplishment, it’s encouraging to see this short-handed roster band together and grind out wins on the backs of Vital, Whaley and Bouknight. All three are playing some of their best basketball of the season, and will need to continue to play at a high level to give UConn any chance of making noise in their final American Athletic Conference tournament.
Next up, the Huskies get some much-needed rest and return to action Thursday evening for Senior Night at Gampel Pavilion against Houston. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.