UConn celebrates 30 years of Gampel with OT win over Cincy
STORRS – Thirty years and one day to the night that Gampel Pavilion opened with UConn stunning No. 15 St. John’s, Chris Smith, the program’s all-time leading scorer, stood at midcourt with some of his former teammates on the Huskies’ logo and basked in the glory of another upset victory.
About 20 minutes after this upset win, a 72-71 triumph UConn triumph over Cincinnati in overtime on Sunday, coach Dan Hurley profusely thanked Scott Burrell, one of the best all-around players in team history, for coming out to celebrate the building and the current team, as well as paving the way for what UConn became.
“It’s great at this point of the season that everyone wanted to come in here and have a great UConn basketball day,” Hurley said. “I wouldn’t say there was pressure on us, but we needed to step up today with an amazing crowd and those amazing Huskies that got this thing started here. It’s fitting they were in the building because now you have another group of Huskies ready to start this next era, which hopefully will yield a lot of the same (success) of those teams.”
It’s no coincidence that in the first year of Gampel, the Huskies went on the Elite Eight, jump-starting a 25-year stretch of championship basketball no one saw coming, one of the best stories in college basketball history. Obviously, in recent years, the program suffered a painful fall and is in the midst of a gradual rebuild. The light, though, is getting brighter at the end of the tunnel.
Their 13-10 record is not championship-caliber, but if you look deeper, you see a team that has been in four overtime games, with seven of their losses by seven points or less and within striking distance in the last minute of each of those defeats. The games are not only closer than they’ve been in the last four years, but significantly more entertaining with larger and more engaged crowds, a group of people craving to revisit the glory days. Not to mention having an offensive star in the making in freshman James Bouknight.
Sunday was no different.
Trailing by 10 with 6:27 left in the first against a Bearcats team on a five-game winning streak, including an impressive one-point victory at Wichita State on Thursday, UConn was on the brink of getting blown out. Brendan Adams (16 points, team-best +9) quickly put that thought to rest, draining two corner threes in a row. Christian Vital added a three of his own and not only did the Huskies avert disaster, they led at the half, 34-30.
The second half was a traditional UConn-Cincinnati slugfest with technical fouls (Vital and Mika Adams-Woods) and the crowd irate with the officials. Bouknight finished with a team-high 23 points and nailed a jumper with 1:06 left to force overtime. The freshman outplayed Cincinnati senior star Jarron Cumberland, who had only eight points on 1-of-11 shooting and six turnovers.
In overtime, Bouknight made two free throws with 1:06 to give the Huskies the lead for good. Cumberland’s attempt for the win at the buzzer was smothered by Vital.
After a seemingly never-ending string of heartbreak, the Huskies now have two wins in four days against the best of the AAC in Tulsa and Cincy.
But first, back to Bouknight. He is clearly the most talented offensive player on the team. The more aggressive he is, the better the Huskies are. He would not be denied on Sunday.
“I’m ready for (the pressure),” said Bouknight, who also scored 22 in the win at Tulsa. “I score the ball. (When) they need me, they’re going to give me the ball and I’m going to go score.”
“That boy, he’s different, man,” praised Vital. “He’s a killer.”
Hurley pointed out that Bouknight needs to work on tightening his handle, but that, in the grand scheme of things, is nit-picking. He knows what he has in this player.
“There’s so many big moments and big games ahead for that guy,” Hurley said. “To do it against a team that is that physical was impressive.”
Tre Scott was a force in the paint for the Bearcats (15-8, 8-3 AAC) with 25 points and 13 rebounds. UConn held his teammates in check, holding them to only 41 percent from the field.
The Huskies, who lost their previous eight games to Cincinnati, are on back on the road Wednesday in another one of their house of horrors at SMU. Before getting back to work, they’ll enjoy a week that felt like years in the making.
“It’s a validation for all of our efforts and what we are trying to build here, and just how competitive we’ve been” Hurley said.
Sunday felt like 1990 for the Huskies, and not 2017, 2018 or 2019. That was a welcomed sight.