UConn shows encouraging signs in opening night win over SHU
STORRS - Throughout a sold out Gampel Pavilion, there was a common two words heard during Friday night’s college basketball season-opener, from fans in the stands, people walking around the concourse and from those waiting in line for food: Big and East.
Yes, the UConn’s impending move back to the Big East has the Huskies’ fan base rejuvenated with excitement. However, that move is still a year away. The 2019-20 season is currently the matter at hand and judging by UConn’s 89-67 victory over Sacred Heart, the Huskies, in Year 2 of the Dan Hurley era, have the potential to leave the AAC in style. There’s just a lot of work to be done.
The first half was a clear reason why. First, Sacred Heart destroyed the Huskies on the glass, securing 11 offensive rebounds. “The rebounding was just indescribably bad,” Hurley said. “We’ll be addressing that.” Christian Vital and Alterique Gilbert, UConn’s veteran backcourt, combined for only six points on 1-of-7 shooting and four turnovers. Sacred Heart, coming off a 46-point loss at Providence, trailed by only three, 40-37.
“Our spirit, in terms of the overall group, I thought would be a lot more emotional, a lot more joyful, and a lot more excited,” Hurley said.
Vital, in particular, was a different player in the second half. He finished with 17 points, seven rebounds, seven steals and three assists before fouling out (aided by a first half technical foul for a brief skirmish). His energy and intensity, reflected by his team-best +32, helped bury the Pioneers for good.
“At the end of the day, it was our first game,” Vital said. “We’re going to go back, watch some film, and as we get more game experience as a team, we’ll start to click.”
Hurley called his team “too nice” and hopes they pick up Vital’s edgy style and attitude on the court. It was quite the compliment considering the two have had their share of personality conflicts since Hurley took over the program last year.
“I’m a fiery guy. Christian’s a fiery guy,” Hurley said. “That needs to run through the veins of the entire team. Christian looks like an outlier out there at times, just with the passion and competitiveness and aggression. We need more of that from everyone across the board.”
“(Our relationship) is definitely building,” added Vital. “We didn’t get off to the best of starts. I truly think we’re on a better page. We’re not perfect. I think we’re learning each other still. I understand a lot more what he expects out of me. People have said we’re like the exact same person and stuff like that and we’re going to have our moments. I think we’re going to have a lot more great moments than struggling moments.”
UConn also received decent games from Josh Carlton (18 points, eight rebounds), a career-high 15 points from sophomore Brendan Adams and 13 from Sidney Wilson. Hurley did note that Carlton (8-of-17 shooting) should’ve finished with more like 26 points if he finished stronger at the rim and also called Tyler Polley’s 10-point effort “a little too last-yearish.”
But as Vital noted, this was still just their first game. And there were enough good signs to be encouraged.
Going forward, Hurley’s early return as a recruiter at UConn has had favorable reviews with the additions of Jalen Gaffney, James Bouknight (currently serving a three-game suspension as punishment for his arrest in September), and Akok Akok, with another strong class slated for next season.
As great as next season and future ones can be, this one just started. After Wednesday’s game against Saint Joseph’s, No. 6 Florida comes to Gampel. In less than a month, the Huskies will face Indiana at Madison Square Garden.
While there’s a lot to look forward to in the long term, the short term is intriguing, too.