Grueling finish to UConn's season
HARTFORD – The pain of defeat, the pain of a difficult season coming to an end, and the pain of knowing he’ll never play for UConn again overwhelmed Rodney Purvis.
After fouling out of the Huskies’ 81-71 loss to Cincinnati in the AAC Tournament semifinals at the XL Center, Purvis sat on the bench, buried his head in his hands and didn’t watch the final minute of this grueling foul-fest, even as the fiery crowd of 8,117 chanted his name.
The scene perfectly captured the 2016-17 UConn season, a year in which the Huskies faced an obscene amount of injuries and a seemingly never-ending string of adversity. These issues resulted in their first losing season (16-17) in 30 years.
“One thing I know is they didn't give up in that locker room and they didn't stop believing. They didn't stop fighting,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “This is not a basketball lesson, this is a life lesson for some of these guys. That's what it's going to be in life. Life is going to punch you sometimes and that's just how you respond. I thought they responded great.
“I tried to be positive throughout the whole season, tried to coach them and prepare them as best as possible, and I thought those guys played hard for me,” he continued. “But most importantly, they played hard for what is on the front of their chest.”
On Saturday, they found themselves in a slugfest with the Bearcats, who improved to 29-4 and will face SMU in the title game. This contest featured the most fouls called in league tournament history with 56 (32 by UConn). Cincinnati took advantage, making 38-of-46 foul shots, including 15-of-16 by Gary Clark, who finished with 25 points and nine rebounds. The officials were under fire all contest from the crowd and needed multiple security guards to accompany them off the court after the game.
Officiating, though, was not the reason UConn lost. The Bearcats, simply, are a superior squad, and never trailed in any of the three matchups between the teams this season.
“It's just tough substituting, you know? But I guess the fefs did the best job that they possibly can,” Ollie said. “You see 46 free throws, 31 free throws in one half, so I don't know if a lot of people were watching that game, because it's just all free throws. That’s not how basketball is supposed to be played.”
UConn trailed by 12 at halftime, and played the final seven minutes of the half without Jalen Adams, in foul trouble with three. After playing nearly every second in the Huskies’ wins over USF and Houston, Adams sat for a total of 11 minutes, which was a huge blow for the Huskies as he scored 20 points and effectively drove to the rim when he was in there.
“It was tough,” Adams admitted. “I see my guys out there fighting, trying to hold on and get the lead, get back in the game, and I put myself and the team in a difficult position by getting those early fouls. So I've just got to learn from that and stay solid and disciplined.”
Purvis, though, helped the Huskies climb within two in the second half, making consecutive three-pointers. One of them was a last second bank at the end of the shot clock, resulting in him giving the “Michael Jordan shrug” in amusement. UConn, which received an impressive 18-point (6-of-10 shooting), 9-rebound effort from Christian Vital, never got any closer, however, fighting foul trouble and a tough-as-nails Cincinnati roster the rest of the way. Jacob Evans added 21 points and three three-pointers without a miss for Cincy.
“I just think we needed to dig down a little bit more, get the key stops that we really needed to get once we were in reach,” Purvis said. “Anytime we got the game down to, like, four or five, we would make a small mistake on the defensive end and give them another shot at it, or we would foul and they were going to the free-throw line, and that was it. I think we did the best that we could as far as the foul trouble and the different things of that nature.”
The senior trio of Purvis, Kentan Facey, and Amida Brimah were all on the Huskies’ 2014 national championship roster. Despite the injuries, in particular the ones to Alterique Gilbert and Terry Larrier, failing to make even the NIT is an embarrassing end for a proud program.
“At the end of the day, you go into summertime, you be selfish, you get in the gym and try to get better,” Ollie said. “You can't replace Kemba (Walker), you can't replace Shabazz (Napier), you can't replace Amida because they're their own entity. But you can get better because of their presence, and learn from them. Whoever is coming back and putting on a UConn jersey has to have a different mindset, have a championship mindset.”
A championship may seem like a lifetime away, but over the past 30 seasons, UConn has a history of strong bounce-back campaigns after tough years. The 1997-98 team, for example, followed up an NIT season with a berth in the Elite 8, and, of course, by a national championship a year later. Anything is possible.
“We're going to keep fighting, we're going to be right back, and we'll be back better than ever. And I truly believe that,” proclaimed Ollie.
UConn's pain, for now, is over.