Sterling Taplin had the best night of his career and led TU to another win and a season sweep of the UConn Huskies.
The last time the men’s basketball team played the UConn Huskies, they barely survived a double-overtime thriller at home on the back of Corey Henderson, who hit clutch shot after clutch shot on his way to a career-high 30 points. Last Thursday, it was Sterling Taplin’s turn to take center stage and drop a 30, as the junior point guard turned in the best performance of his career to lead the Golden Hurricane to their fourth consecutive victory and first ever in Hartford.
Taplin came out of the gates looking to fire away early, knocking down two treys in the opening five minutes to spot TU to an 8-6 lead. It was the last time Tulsa held the advantage until the second half, as the Huskies responded with a blitz of wide-open looks from the corners and wings. They connected on 8-19 triples in the first half, point guard Jalen Adams having no problem breaking down the defense to the tune of six assists. The Golden Hurricane looked outmatched against the talented Adams and his backcourt mate Christian Vitale, who tallied a team-high 13 points and six rebounds. Entering the break, they were down 40-31, nearly half of those points coming from Taplin alone.
Things began to look up for TU around the 17:00 mark, when the team went small and replaced Martins Igbanu with DaQuan Jeffries around the other starters. Igbanu had looked sluggish and out-of-sorts all night (he finished scoreless and with two rebounds in just 16 minutes), and Jeffries’s high-octane play on both ends looked like it sent a much-needed jolt of lightning through the Golden Hurricane. His rim-rattling, one-dribble baseline slam immediately after checking in kicked off a 14-5 stretch over the next few minutes that saw Tulsa regain the lead. During that run, Taplin canned his seventh three pointer of the game with more than 13 minutes to go, looking like a real threat to challenge the TU single-game record of 10 set by James Woodard in 2015 against SMU. Though it would be his last such shot of the game, he continued to be effective facilitating the offense, dishing out four assists in the closing minutes.
UConn hung tough and briefly regained the lead, but when Lawson Korita hit a three from the left wing off a beautiful inside-out dish from Junior Etou to go up 68-61 with two minutes remaining, it looked all but over for the Huskies. “Not so fast,” replied Adams and swingman Terry Larrier. Larrier, whose missed three-pointer at the buzzer clinched the win for the Golden Hurricane during the teams’ first meeting, hit two huge triples in transition from Adams to bring Connecticut back within one. One possession later, two free throws from Christian Vitale gave his team the lead and had the XL Center crowd ready to explode.
With Tulsa’s winning streak and postseason hopes on the line, Taplin once again came up huge as he had all night, cutting through the middle for a tough layup to regain the lead. On the ensuing possession, he channeled his inner Dane Evans and bombed a pass downcourt to a wide-open DaQuan Jeffries, who made it a three-point game. Even after all his heroics, it was still almost for naught in the game’s final seconds. Adams found an open man under the hoop, then had a chance to tie or win on the final possession when Etou hit only one of two free throws. Barreling towards the basket, he got off a tough but very makeable scooping layup under the extended arms of Jeffries. The ball floated over the rim, not catching any iron. It landed softly in Etou’s hands, who spiked it into the hardwood. Ballgame, 73-71 TU.
For the game, Tulsa shot an impressive 55 percent from three and the floor overall, though they connected on just 10-19 from the free throw line. They held UConn to 40 percent field goal shooting, but suffered on the defensive glass, giving up 15 offensive boards to help keep the Huskies close. In addition to Taplin’s game-high 30 points, Etou and Jeffries put up a combined 29 on 11-18 shooting. With the W, TU improved to 15-10 (8-5) and maintained its fourth seed in the AAC, while Connecticut fell to 12-14 (5-8).
As Coach Haith so eloquently put it after the game, Taplin “had a night.” You think? I don’t know, I’ve always considered 10-12 shooting, including 7-8 from three, and four dimes with zero turnovers more of a “day” performance myself. But then again, I am but a lowly college sports writer. I kid Haith, of course, because there’s not really much more you could say about Taplin’s sublime game. Obviously hitting seven three pointers is always going to be a bit of a fluke for anybody not named Steph Curry or James Harden, but hopefully this represents a change in fortune for Taplin’s success from deep. After knocking down 40.3 of his shots from beyond the arc last year (albeit on only 2.3 attempts per game), he struggled mightily to kick off 2017-18, still connecting on a high-twenties clip more than two months into the season. That mark is now all the way up to 38 percent, now on 3.7 shots per game, and more and more defenders are finding themselves having to go over screens or switch the defensive action altogether. This is opening all kinds of driving lanes and mismatches for Taplin, who then gets to flex his greatest strengths: ball control and finishing ability around the basket. If he can prove that this recent hot streak is not a mirage and potentially improve on it going into his senior year, we could be looking at one of the best, or at least most underrated, point guards in the country.