UConn loses Akok, beats Memphis
HARTFORD – It had all of the makings of a celebration for the UConn men’s basketball program on Sunday.
The XL Center was sold out for the first time in two years. Several former and future players watched the game from behind the bench, including Shabazz Napier, Jalen Adams and Andre Jackson. James Bouknight, the Huskies’ rising star, electrified the city with a dunk over fellow freshman phenom Precious Achiuwa. The Huskies, getting better by the day, defeated one of their bigger AAC rivals in Memphis (along with Cincinnati), 64-61.
Instead, though, the day ended with coach Dan Hurley in tears at his postgame press conference. And it ended with the Huskies facing serious questions about their short-term future next season.
In the first minute of the game, UConn freshman Akok Akok, the AAC’s leading shot-blocker, went down with a potentially devastating left Achilles injury after blocking a shot by Achiuwa. He will have a MRI on Monday, but an emotional Hurley says he expects the worse and that it’s torn. The usual recovery time for a player is around 9-12 months, which puts next season in jeopardy for him. Not only is it a devastating injury for Akok, it’s a demoralizing loss for the Huskies.
“It’s a big win, but there’s no joy in it,” Hurley said. “Sports are brutal sometimes, life is brutal sometimes. I’ve been through this before with E.C. Matthews at Rhode Island. That guy came back and he was amazing. Akok will come back from this and be that special player that he deserves to be.
“It’s going to take months (physically) and it’s going to take a long time (to get over this mentally). People have no idea how close these kids are with each other. Coaches and players are family.”
After being helped to the locker room in tears, Akok re-emerged to the bench in uniform, while on crutches and wearing a walking boot. He and Hurley embraced in a long hug and Akok remained with the team for the rest of the game, cheering them on despite knowing it will probably be a very long time before he plays again.
"He hadn't played perfect games, but his approach every day was perfect," Hurley said. "This sucks."
Somehow, the Huskies were able to regain their composure, fighting to a halftime tie before surviving the final stretch. This season, UConn (14-11) lost Tyler Polley, their leading three-point shooter to a torn ACL, several close games including three in overtime, and now Akok.
“It was real tough to see him go down,” said Bouknight, who shot 2-of-11 in the first half, but finished strong and ended up with 17 points. “We won the game for (Akok). He’s tough, he’s a warrior, and we can’t wait for him to get back.
“Being around him, he’s my brother, not just a teammate, so that was very upsetting. But I talked to him when he got back to the bench and he wanted us to win the game for him.”
Bouknight was involved in the play of the game with 3:12 left and the Huskies up two. Christian Vital forced a steal, hit Bouknight on the run and the freshman threw down a dunk, plus a foul, over Achiuwa. The crowd was especially hyped since Achiuwa picked Memphis over UConn during his recruitment period. Akok stood and screamed with both hands in the air.
“I saw (Achiuwa) out of the corner of my eye,” Bouknight said. “I didn’t expect him to jump because I thought I had a step on him, but I just went up and dunked it.”
Vital and Bouknight combined to score 29 of the Huskies’ 39 second half points. They also combined for 17 rebounds and Vital hit all 10 of his free throws, including two in the final seconds.
“They’re going to get the opportunities, they’re the go-to-guys,” Memphis coach Penny Hardaway said. “They’re going to keep coming at you. Danny's going to make sure of that. The rest of the team is following suit."
Being a senior, Vital knows he will not get the chance to play with Akok again and declined to answer questions about the injury, clearly still emotional.
Needing help in the paint, UConn received six blocks, seven rebounds and five points from Isaiah Whaley, with Josh Carlton securing a career-high 13 rebounds. The Huskies even outrebounded the taller Tigers, 45-42.
About 40 minutes after the game, Akok climbed on to the team bus, having to hop on his right leg to climb the narrow stairs. UConn has, in some way, overcome every obstacle thrown its way this season. To have any postseason success, this will be its biggest roadblock yet.
If they overcome this, then the Huskies will finally have their reason to celebrate.