UConn guard Christian Vital believes the experience of losing a lot of close games this season helped the Huskies get a win on Sunday.
Vital scored 24 points and freshman James Bouknight had 16 of his 19 points in the second half to lead Connecticut past South Florida 78-71.
Jalen Gaffney and Brendan Adams each added 10 points for Connecticut (15-12, 6-8 American), which has lost 10 games this season by single digits, including Thursday’s double-overtime setback at Temple.
“We know that the teams we lost to, we should have beat them,” Vital said. “So now, it’s like, we’ve been in this position before, so lets just finish it now.”
Justin Brown scored 22 points and David Collins added 18 to lead USF (11-16, 4-10), which has lost four straight.
“We fought and battled for the second game on the road,” South Florida coach Brian Gregory said. “We just didn’t get the stops you need to get on the road in those critical situations.”
The Huskies led by as many as 11 points in the first half and by six points at halftime.
But Bouknight and center Josh Carlton each picked up their third fouls early in the second half and USF hit its first five shots after intermission.
A 3-pointer by Laquincy Rideau tied the game at 38 and a 3-pointer by Madut Akec gave the Bulls their only lead of the second half at 47-46.
A tomahawk dunk from Vital highlighted an 8-2 run that put the Huskies back up 59-53.
But three minutes later, a pair of free throws from David Collins cut UConn’s lead to 65-62.
Vital and Bouknight took over from there.
A step-back 3-pointer from Vital, which sent a defender sprawling, started an 8-0 run that clinched the game. He and Bouknight accounted for 12 of the Huskies final 13 points.
“Me and him, when we go out there, we’ve just got to be the dynamic duo type,” Bouknight said. “When I came back in the second half, he said it was a little harder without me.”
USF: The Bulls visits to Connecticut have not gone well. USF is now 0-11 the road against UConn and 4-23 all-time against the Huskies.
UConn: The Huskies improved to 61-61 in regular-season play over its seven-years in the American Athletic Conference. They have four more conference games to try and finish their tenure in the AAC with a winning record. UConn is leaving the conference at the end of the season to return to the Big East.
Vital’s four 3-pointers give him 253 for his career, a new American Athletic Conference record.
“I know I got a lot more work to do, but that’s definitely a nice accomplishment,” the senior said. “I’ll take that.”
PLAY OF THE GAME
With UConn up 59-55, Vital missed a 3-point attempt from the top of the key. Bouknight followed the shot with a flying one-hand dunk that brought the crowd to its feet.
“When he puts it all together for us next year, you’re looking at potentially that next ‘one,’” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. ”He just does some innate things that you just can’t teach somebody.”
UConn coach Dan Hurley was handed a subpoena at his home on Saturday to testify in the arbitration dispute between the Huskies and former coach Kevin Ollie over the amount of money he is owed by the school. Ollie’s lawyer says he wants to find out if school officials talked to Hurley before they fired Ollie in 2018. UConn said it was disappointed by the move.
“Coach Hurley was hired after Ollie was terminated and had nothing to do with Ollie’s separation from the program or the numerous NCAA violations that led to it, nor does he have any role at all in the ongoing legal dispute that followed,” the school said in a statement.
USF: The Bulls head home to host East Carolina on Wednesday
UConn: UConn hosts the other Florida team in the AAC, UCF, on Wednesday.