UConn loses Akok Akok, but rallies to beat Memphis in rematchFebruary 17, 2020 1:46am

Feb. 16-- HARTFORD, Conn.-However this season turns out, the UConn men have had their days, had their moments. Some painful, some exhilarating, some a little bit of both.

This memorable mid-February Sunday in Hartford had all of it in a 2-hour nutshell-what the Huskies once were, what they have been about in 2019-20 and hope to be. Losing one of their top players, Akok Akok, to devastating Achilles injury early in the game, the Huskies stayed in the fight against a talented Memphis team, rallied and prevailed 64-61, restoring the full-throat roar to an XL Center filled to 15,564 capacity, in AAC basketball.

"Just proud of the way the guys fought and the character they showed," said coach Dan Hurley, barely able to get his words out in a tearful postgame interview. "There's joy in it, (overcoming) when something like that happens in the first minute. Sports is brutal sometimes. Life is brutal sometimes."

Where so many times this season the Huskies have done everything but win, this time, they did nothing great, except for whatever it took down the stretch to make the win happen. Freshman James Bouknight, after starting 3-for-15, was immense during the final minutes and finished with 17 points. Christian Vital, 5-for-15, picked up all the loose change and scored 23, with nine rebounds, going 10-for-10 from the line, including 4-for-4 during the final 9 seconds to ice the game.

"We're turning that corner," Vital said. "Guys are believing with each game we're starting to win."

The Huskies shot only 31.5 percent, including 4-for-23 on 3-pointers, but made the clutch shots to even it up with the Tigers, who won 70-63 at Memphis on Feb. 1. UConn (14-11, 5-7 AAC) has won rematches with Tulsa, Cincinnati and Memphis over the last couple of weeks, a sign the Huskies are approaching their best basketball with the conference tournament six games away.

"We're starting to jell. We're figuring each other out at the right time,"said Vital, too emotional to take any questions about Akok. "We can play our best basketball soon. I think we're starting to get it figured out."

Less than a minute into the game, Akok blocked a shot by Memphis star Precious Achiuwa, then fell awkwardly to the floor as he turned to head up the court, his face showing intense pain. After several minutes, teammates lifted him and helped him off the court as he kept his left leg curled. Later, he returned to the bench with a crutch and a knee-length walking boot, in tears, and was comforted by teammates and coaches. In the second half, as his teammates continued to fight, Akok came out on two crutches, in full uniform, and stayed on the bench, joining the huddles.

"It meant a lot," said Isaiah Whaley, who took Akok's place at forward. "Even with his full jersey on, he really wanted to be a part of what was going on. It showed that he really cared about the team, and he really wanted this win, and we got the win for him. He loves everybody here, and we all love him."

Said Bouknight, "We knew he wasn't going to stay in the locker room. He's not that type of person. He's so invested in this team and winning the game."

Akok will have an MRI on Monday, but it appears he tore an Achilles, an injury that would require surgery and several months of rehab. Hurley lost his top player, E.C. Mathews, to that injury during his time at Rhode Island, so he suspected that was it right away.

With Akok out, Whaley was paired with Josh Carlton, and the Huskies, with two power forwards, began winning the rebounding battle, finishing with 18 offensive rebounds, and keeping the 6-foot-9 Achiuwa in check; Achiuwa missed 11 shots in a row at one point. Carlton had six points and 13 rebounds, Whaley five and seven.

"Christian, Josh, Isaiah in particular," Hurley said, "the character of the older players, and the freshmen, they're just helping us daily build a culture. We shot 31% today and did some bizarre things on offense, but what you see is a program that just developed a character about it."

UConn took a 49-47 lead on Vital free throws with 5:14 left, the eighth lead change of the day. Achiuwa tied it with a dunk and a 3-point play, but Bouknight hit two free throws. Vital made a brilliant play to steal the ball at the other end and throw a terrific pass to Bouknight, who completed a 3-point play of his own to put the Huskies ahead 55-50 with 3:05 left, and they didn't trail again. The Huskies shot 18-for-20 from the line.

"Our fans were great. Sometimes they were so loud I couldn't hear the play called," Bouknight said. "They helped us get through the game. I wasn't shooting my best, but I could still hear people calling my name. There was a lot of love."

The first Hartford sellout in more than two years included eight recruits and a slew of former Huskies stars, including Shabazz Napier and Jalen Adams sitting behind the UConn bench. The Tigers opened a six-point lead in the first half, as the Huskies seemed bewildered after the loss of Akok. But they steadied and scrambled back to tie it at 25 at halftime.

The Huskies missed their first five shots of the second half and fell five points behind. Brendan Adams tied the score at 36 with a 3-pointer, but the Tigers scored the next five points. Vital matched them with five straight points, then Jalen Gaffney picked up a loose ball, drove coast-to-coast and got a goaltending call, putting UConn ahead 45-44 with 8:59 to play.

Achiuwa had 16 points and 12 rebounds, and Tyler Harris 16, but Memphis, 21-for-60 with 16 turnovers, never got in sync.

___

(c)2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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