Senior Night. Gampel’s last game in the American Athletic Conference (AAC). Another crack at a ranked team. Eleven NBA scouts in attendance. Coveted local recruit Donovan Clingan in the house. There was a lot of buzz around UConn men’s basketball’s Thursday night tilt against Houston, and Dan Hurley’s Huskies delivered.
The Huskies knocked off No. 21 University of Houston, 77-71. UConn improves to to 18-12 and 9-8 in the American Athletic Conference. It was UConn’s first win over a ranked conference opponent since beating SMU in 2016.
Senior Christian Vital and freshman James Bouknight led the Huskies with 26 and 17 points, respectively. As we’ve become accustomed to seeing, junior Isaiah Whaley brought his lunch pail, chipping in 13 points and five rebounds.
It was a high-energy, physical battle from the jump where everything at the rim was challenged on both ends. UConn and Houston are known for their man-to-man ball pressure, and both lived up to the billing early. The Huskies were effective in denying Houston’s first pass, resulting in a lot of side-to-side ball movement from Houston.
An early 16-0 run had UConn up 11, and an already raucous Gampel looked ready to blow. Five different players scored during that run, which is impressive considering their injury-depleted depth.
If it all seemed like too much of a good thing so soon, you were correct. Houston snapped a six-and-a-half minute scoring drought with an 8-0 run of its own. The Huskies kept the Cougars at bay with timely buckets from the guard triumvirate of Vital, Gilbert, and Gaffney.
But Houston freshman Caleb Mills proved to be a difficult mismatch for UConn; too quick for bigs Whaley and Wilson, and shot right over the Husky backcourt. So despite all of the positives, UConn found itself down seven at the halftime break after a 10-0 run from Houston. Quentin Grimes and Mills combined for 22 bench points to give Houston the boost it needed.
A four-point play from Bouknight got the Huskies and the crowd back into it to start the second half. It was also the third foul on Nate Hinton, who is 4th in the AAC in rebounding. Jarreau picked up his fourth foul (zero bites) soon after, but that just meant Mills and Grimes were put back in the game. After a Vital three tied it up at 43, both teams traded buckets for roughly the next five minutes. But ticky-tack touch fouls (an AAC specialty) started to rack up on both ends, slowing down what was a fast-paced game.
A huge chase-down block from junior Sidney Wilson jolted the everyone out of the ref-induced slumber. With UConn up three at 7:56, Bouknight picked up his fourth foul, prompting everyone to wonder whether the Huskies could afford to send their best scorer to the bench.
Hurley opted to sit the star freshman, but UConn was able to extend its lead to seven. Plus, Jarreau promptly fouled out, taking a seat on the bench to presumably get a bite to eat. The Huskies pushed the lead to 11 with some nifty ball movement and gang rebounding. Houston tried to press, but a deep ball to Whaley for a dunk effectively put the nail in the coffin. Houston trying to extend the game by fouling, but Vital sunk the free throws needed to ice it.
It was a truly admirable effort from the Huskies on a night where they honored Vital, Gilbert, Mamadou Diarra, and Temi AIyegbusi as part of their senior night festivities. Houston came into the game ranked 11th in KenPom and is among the nation’s best on both offense and defense. Kelvin Sampson is an incredible coach, his history of recruiting violations notwithstanding.
UConn will close out the regular season Sunday at Tulane, at 4 p.m. in a game that will be televised on ESPNU.