Offensive-challenged Huskies fall to No. 2 Duke in New Jersey
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – The atmosphere, the neutral court setting and, especially, the opponent gave a random Thursday night in December an NCAA Tournament feel.
The outcome made one thing clear – the reigning national champions have a lot of work to do to ensure a title defense opportunity come March.
For the third time in four games, UConn did not only lose, but displayed disturbing signs offensively, missing 9-of-12 three-pointers and seven free throws in falling to No. 2 Duke, 66-56, in front of a lively 16,541 at the Izod Center.
Similar to their losses against Texas and Yale, the Huskies wasted a solid defensive performance, holding Duke to only 37 percent shooting and forcing 19 turnovers in the process.
Ryan Boatright had a strong game with 22 points, seven rebounds and three steals, and Kentan Facey, it can easily be argued, had his best game in a Connecticut uniform, finishing with 14 points and nine rebounds (five offensive). To say the rest of the Huskies struggled would be an understatement.
Notably, Amida Brimah, after scoring a career-high 40 points on 13-of-13 shooting (11 dunks) against Coppin State, picked up a foul in the first minute of the game and was a complete non-factor, going scoreless with only one rebound in 13 minutes. He also fouled out and was outplayed in the paint by freshman phenom Jahlil Okafor, who notched 12 points, eight rebounds and two assists, including an impressive spin move around Phil Nolan for a dunk in the Blue Devils’ decisive 15-2 run in the second half.
“The calls and stuff took me out of the game, but I can’t blame it on the refs,” Brimah said. “It is what it is. We could’ve played better than that.”
“He’s got to get stronger, and he has to get mentally tough,” added UConn coach Kevin Ollie. “You can’t take a blocking foul and you can’t have a foul when Jahlil is dribbling the ball at the free throw line. He’s going to keep growing, though, and be a special player when it is all said and done.”
On the perimeter, Rodney Purvis, Terrence Samuel, Sam Cassell Jr. and Omar Calhoun not only struggled with their shots, combining to shoot 4-of-17, but seemed tentative, often swinging the ball away even when open.
That left the load on Boatright’s shoulders, and asking to him to carry the team against a squad of Duke’s caliber was way too much to ask. It’s a point he’s trying to get across.
“They all have the ability to (score), they just need to do it,” Boatright said. "A lot of teams are going to double team me, especially when I am scoring. Coach said we need the next guard to step up and make plays, whether it’s scoring or making plays for other people, kind of what I did for Shabazz (Napier) last year. I have to challenge the team in a positive way, and hopefully they take it the right way and get better.”
One of those messages will be to just shoot.
“We have the best coach in America, and he lets you play. No restrictions,” noted Boatright. “If you have a wide open shot, take it.”
Thanks to Boatright and a strong team defensive effort, the Huskies clawed their way back from a 13-point deficit and trailed by only six with under four minutes remaining. Justise Winslow’s three at the 3:06 mark brought the advantage back up to nine.
After Boatright hit a three, Brimah fouled Okafor, his fifth and final foul. The Huskies’ bench loudly protested, wanting a travel call on Okafor. He missed both foul shots, but Winslow (12 points) tipped in the second miss for the dagger, giving Duke a 10th win without a loss, all by double digits.
This victory was the Blue Devils’ most satisfying to date. Tyus Jones led Duke with 21 points and Amile Jefferson recorded a double-double with 11 points and 13 rebounds.
“We beat a heck of a team and program tonight,” said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose team attempted 34 free throws compared to UConn’s 13. “That was a hard fought game. It was a fight. A good fight…a clean fight.
“Connecticut played their butts off,” he continued. “Effort-wise, they played every play against us and that’s how we’re going to get better.”
UConn, at 4-4, has its work cut out for the remainder of the season. A win over Duke would’ve helped its long-term outlook immensely. Now, there’s little room for any slip-ups come conference play in the weaker AAC.
It’s back to the offensive drawing board.
“I have a big problem, but not with the refs – with our guys,” Ollie said. “We have to be aggressive, take it to the rim and get rebounds. We’ve just got to get better on the offensive end.”
That’s a must if the Huskies want to experience not just a tournament-atmosphere type of game, but the actual tournament itself.