UConn falls short in double OT thriller
HARTFORD – This was different.
Down nine with 1:01 left to No. 23 Wichita State, this one had all the markings of its prior losses to ranked teams in the last two seasons for UConn. Good fight, but not enough execution and, frankly, not enough talent.
Somehow, the Huskies, who announced their best three-point shooter in Tyler Polley will miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL, found themselves down three with 10 seconds left. The script over the past three seasons was familiar in similar situations: either a turnover, missed shot, or even not getting a shot off at all. And, ultimately, a loss.
But much to the delight of the boisterous crowd of 13,281 that still remained at the XL Center, the Huskies finally had something positive go their way. Alterique Gilbert drove to the hoop and hit Sidney Wilson, who stood wide open in the corner.
Wilson promptly nailed the three with 1.6 seconds left and then blocked the Shockers’ attempt for the win. UConn continued to fight a physical and talented Wichita State squad, but eventually fell in double overtime, 89-86, when Christian Vital’s three for the tie rimmed out in the final seconds.
Vital was almost in tears after the game, worn down from the hard battle and upset with his miss. As the Huskies headed to the tunnel back to the locker room, they received a standing ovation. Hurley even stopped to greet some fans on his way out.
Hurley is the first to say there are no moral victories at UConn. And there shouldn’t be for a program with four national championships in 21 years. This was different, though, considering how unlikely the comeback was, the level of opponent, and, obviously, the pain of three straight losing seasons after not having one for three decades.
“This was the identity of toughness, defensive toughness, game toughness that you rebuild championship level programs with, ones that help you get back to the top of the mountain,” Hurley said. “There’s no moral victories at UConn. But I was very proud of the guys and the way that they just battled.”
Wilson is a prime example of what Hurley alluded to. Stuck to the bench for most of the season, including for the entire win against Tulane on Wednesday, Wilson played a season-high 24 minutes and was arguably the Huskies’ best player, finishing with a team-best plus-13 (no other player was more than a plus-four). He scored 12 points, blocked two shots, grabbed four rebounds, made his first two three-pointers of the season and was, simply, all over the place.
At the end of the first half, he highlighted the sequence of the UConn season so far, blocking a shot, which Vital dove into the second row to save. On the fast break, Josh Carlton missed an alley-oop lay-up, but Wilson came flying in for the one-handed putback slam, which shook the XL Center. Wilson then stomped his feet and screamed into the air, emotion the program sorely needs.
“He practiced like his life depended on it,” Hurley said. “He showed up today and played at an intensity level like his life depended on it.”
“Not playing definitely makes you more hungry,” added Wilson. “After what happened to Tyler, we were hurting, and I knew I had to step up.”
And, despite his lack of action this season, he found the ball in his hands in UConn’s biggest moment yet.
“I just knew we needed the three,” Wilson said. “Alterique trusted me even though I missed one earlier in the half. He hit me in the corner, I felt confident, and just took the shot.”
UConn (10-6, 1-3 AAC) had its chances in the extra sessions, but couldn’t get out of its own way, notably in the second overtime. Gilbert had two passes go off the hands of Carlton for turnovers, he also missed two free throws, and, with 16.1 seconds left, was called for a charge, negating a Carlton dunk.
In a sign of the future, freshman James Bouknight made his first career start in place of Polley and had a strong game with 16 points and six rebounds and seemed unfazed by the magnitude of the game. Hurley says he’ll be “unleashed” going forward. Vital had 25 points and five steals in 45 minutes.
Wichita State is now 15-1 (3-0 AAC) and 29-4 since getting blown out (80-60) by the Huskies nearly a year ago at Gampel. Jaime Echenique led a well-balanced Shockers attack with 19 points and eight rebounds. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, they are well on their way to the NCAA Tournament.
“This was a hard-fought, gutsy performance by both teams,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “It’s a shame one of the teams had to lose.”
Hurley sees losses like this as a stepping stone to something bigger.
“My expectation is that we’re either going to win the game or lose in excruciating fashion, which I said in September, which I said in October, which I said two weeks ago,” Hurley said. “In year two of a rebuild, this is what that is.”
This was a loss for the Huskies, but in the long run, it will serve as a valuable learning experience. You could see that in their fight. It was just different.