UConn barely survives ECU
HARTFORD – At just about the halfway point of the regular season, it’s clear you can’t look at UConn's schedule and predict any game as a guaranteed win.
The Huskies’ contest with East Carolina on Saturday was supposed to be one of those, with UConn slated as a 16-point favorite. But, in the spirit of their lackluster overtime wins against Columbia and Monmouth, UConn just escaped against the Pirates, withstanding a last second three-point attempt from B.J. Tyson that was on target and just missed off the back rim. The Huskies were victorious at the XL Center, 70-65, and snapped a four-game losing streak. Barely.
“We just have to cut down on the turnovers, (making) foolish mistakes, and we have to play better to win some games,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “I’m not going to apologize for a victory any day. We have to move on and just get better.”
UConn (8-7, 1-2 AAC) jumped out to a 12-point first half lead, holding ECU without a field goal for over six minutes to start. However, ECU quickly recovered and led by Tyson (game-high 21 points), took the lead with 2:35 left in the half. The Huskies led by one at the half and never trailed again, but could not shake ECU, similar to Wednesday’s loss at Tulsa.
They nearly blew an eight-point advantage with 1:39 remaining and almost melted completely, thanks to two missed free throws from Terry Larrier and one by Christian Vital. Tyson was able to break free in the final seconds and had a great look. It just missed and Tyler Polley grabbed the rebound and iced the win with two free throws, his only points of the game.
UConn committed 15 turnovers (seven by Jalen Adams), mostly caused by sloppy passing, and missed 14 of its 16 three-point attempts (a common trend to say the least).
In a season full of struggles, a loss here would’ve marked rock bottom. Two games ago, ECU scored a paltry 39 points in a 20-point drubbing by UCF at home. The Pirates have also lost at home to Radford and Central Connecticut State (by double digits, no less). They were picked 11th in the AAC preseason rankings. They entered Saturday ranked 322nd in the RPI (there are 351 Division I teams). You get the point.
Instead of picking themselves off the ground after a disaster, the Huskies go back to the drawing board with a win as an improving UCF looms Wednesday night at Gampel.
“We know we have to play much better, we are not going to be able to sneak by like that with the win with that type of performance,” said Adams, who had 18 points, six rebounds, and four of the Huskies’ seven assists. “We just have to play better and take the positives from this game and build on those and take the negatives and work on those.”
As usual, Adams, Larrier (16), and Vital (16) were the only Huskies to score in double figures, the sixth straight game that’s happened. However, freshman Isaiah Whaley was a bright spot, scoring seven points and grabbing seven rebounds in 23 minutes, several of which came at center in the second half.
Ollie heaped some heavy praise on him.
“Oh man, I’m elated with that kid. That kid, he embodies what UConn is all about," Ollie said. “You can go down the line, Rod Sellers, Lyman DePriest, all those guys are (similar to) him and that’s what we want. We have to get more guys like him playing with that intensity, playing with that focus.
“He just goes out there and plays," Ollie continued. "Rebounds, he’ll get a point, he doesn’t really care, he’s just going to play. He’ll make a couple mistakes, but I can live with it because he is playing with level-five energy, and he’s a selfless human being and that’s what I love about him.”
UConn is desperate for a complementary fourth scorer and Whaley, who was in the starting lineup Saturday, showed the potential that he could be that piece. The next step for him is contributing in that manner against stronger competition.
And that’s the next step for the Huskies, too. Getting his team to take that step may be Ollie’s biggest challenge yet. Saturday’s performance, though victorious, did not give much hope that it will be taken.