UConn picks up vital comeback win over Memphis
HARTFORD – Standing at 6-foot-2, Christian Vital is well aware dunks are not going to be a regular part of his offensive repertoire. That is pretty clear considering the freshman was still looking for his first dunk 24 games into the season.
He couldn’t, though, have picked a better time for his first one. And UConn couldn’t have picked a better time for its largest comeback victory in a year full of adversity.
With the Huskies up one and 27 seconds left, Vital snuck behind the Memphis defense on the inbounds play, caught Rodney Purvis’ pass, and threw down a two-handed slam, which helped the Huskies finish off a 65-62 victory Thursday night before a small, but feisty late night gathering of 9,631 at the XL Center.
UConn coach Kevin Ollie was thrilled with the outcome of Vital’s dunk. He would’ve used the more conventional route, however.
“I hate that he dunked it,” Ollie joked. “I would’ve laid the ball up, but that kid, I can’t say enough (good things) about him.”
“I’m confident in my legs and my ability to dunk the ball,” Vital said laughing when told of Ollie’s quote. “It felt kind of good, especially to put the seal on the game. It was a fun moment for me.”
The moment was particularly large for the Huskies, who overcame a 17-point deficit and climbed above .500 for the first time this season at 13-12, including 8-5 in AAC play. They’re also in a strong position to earn a bye at the AAC Tournament scheduled for March in Hartford.
This season has been filled with injuries and head-scratching losses. It would’ve been easy for this team to go down without a fight when Memphis’ lead grew. What was their mindset then?
“How are we going to come back?,” said Vital after scoring 13 points. “That’s the only mindset, that’s the only way we’re told to think, and the only way we should think. Tonight was another night of us showing how resilient we are on both ends and we were able to get a great win.”
Jalen Adams had a rough week, sitting out every practice due to the flu, and a rough first half as well, scoring only two points on 1-of-6 shooting. He was a different player in the final 20 minutes, netting 17 points and hitting the eventual game-winning shot, a 12-foot floater in the lane with 1:59 left.
“Amida (Brimah) set a great screen to free me up and I was able to get to my spot,” Adams said. “Me and coach Ollie work on that play all the time.”
“He was just attacking, and reading what the defense was giving him,” added Ollie. “He wasn’t attacking the rim like he was supposed to, but then he just settled down. I’m proud of him. He couldn’t practice all week and for Jay to come out and play well means a lot for our team.”
Kentan Facey added eight points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks for the Huskies, while Purvis, despite an off-shooting night (3-of-12), contributed that big assist to Vital and threw a hard dunk at the buzzer to cap the wild night. The Huskies held Memphis’ top gun Dedric Lawson to 12 points and the Tigers to a woeful 33 percent shooting in the second half.
“That last half was UConn basketball," Ollie said. “We tried to mix it up, and we rebounded better, and kept them out of transition. We didn’t shoot particularly well, but that shows the growth of our team, being able to pull out a gutsy win anyway.”
UConn has now won three in a row and six out of seven. Its best basketball has come at the best time of year. It just took some time for the team, notably the younger players, to come together after the seemingly endless string of injuries.
“Coming into my freshman year, I had no idea the season would be like this,” Vital said. “It is what it is and we’ve been told to adjust. Everyone has needed to step up and do even more to get wins and that’s what we’ve been doing recently.”
“The guys have crazy confidence (now),” noted Adams. “We know we’re shorthanded, but we don’t use that as an excuse. This is a much better team, especially here in the second half of conference play. We’ve grown a lot.”
The Huskies have no chance of getting an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. It’s hard, however, to count them out of the AAC Tournament, especially since it will be played at home.
“We’re trying to get the best seed and in this building, I think we can beat anyone,” Ollie said. “Anything can happen.”
This season of unpredictability has shown that.