UConn battles hard, but still falls to UCF
HARTFORD – After Christian Vital’s violent putback dunk in traffic pulled UConn within three against UCF on Saturday, the crowd of over 10,000 at the XL Center went nuts, reminiscent of better times in the program’s history. Moments later, they had bigger cause for celebration when Vital nailed a three to tie the game. UConn coach Dan Hurley was right with the fans, doing twists in the air like he was trying to win Olympic gold in figure skating.
But, and there always seems to be a “but” in UConn land over the last three years, the excitement turned into eventual disappointment. Like in their loss to Villanova at Madison Square Garden before Christmas and in their defeat at USF on Wednesday, the Huskies simply did not have enough offensive fire power to complete the job.
Done in by 32 percent shooting (24 percent in the second half) and 18 turnovers, UConn fell to the Knights, 65-53, marking the Huskies’ third straight loss and second in a row to start AAC play.
Hurley, who has focused on the baby steps of rebuilding, saw this loss as a positive step in the right direction after the meltdown in Tampa three days earlier.
“It’s kind of hard to sit up here (at the press conference) as coach at UConn and feel real good about the effort, or feel better about yourself after a 12-point home loss,” Hurley said, “but after Wednesday’s game, the shame and embarrassment of our effort, the way we challenged guys coming in here about the effort, I’m not sure we could’ve played harder.
“The reality of it is, we’re still pretty far from where we need to be.”
Hurley has alluded to, on several occasions, the bad habits the players under Kevin Ollie and the previous coaching staff developed. Notably, the ability to fight through adversity.
The last three losses are great examples. Against Villanova, the Huskies led in the second half before getting blown out by 23. They led by 13 right before the half against USF and, on Saturday, they finished with a season-low in points.
“There’s a reason why I’m here, and I’m here to fix the issues we’re talking about” Hurley said. “Part of why UConn has struggled is that toughness, that mentality, that killer mindset, that will to win that has driven this program to the heights it’s been. It’s been absent and you don’t get that back over night.”
Saturday’s game featured multiple box score oddities. Against a superior frontline when it comes to size, led by 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall, the Huskies somehow outrebounded UCF, 37-23, including an obscene 17-0 margin on the offensive glass, leading UCF coach Johnny Dawkins to state that, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before.”
But (there’s that word again), UConn only registered six second chance points, unable to finish around the rim with Fall lurking.
Also, there’s the continued struggles of Jalen Adams, who finished 2-of-10 from the field with only eight points and three turnovers in 37 minutes. In the three minutes he wasn’t on the court, however, UConn was outscored by 10 points compared to the minus-2 when he was on the floor. Vital, meanwhile, finished with 15 points and was a minus-14. Alterique Gilbert led the Huskies with 18 points, but had only five after halftime.
UConn also had no answers for Dawkins’ son, Aubrey, who torched the Huskies for 23 points, making nine of his 13 shots.
“We compete, but I feel like today we really turned it up,” said UConn center Eric Cobb, who had a team-high eight rebounds. “I’m not being cocky, but we’re UConn. I feel like no team in this conference should be able to stick with us. That’s how I feel.”
In the end, though, the Knights, a preseason AAC favorite, are in a better place than the Huskies. Rebuilding a program from scratch takes time, which Hurley knows, as his former teams in Wagner and Rhode Island went a combined 20-38 in his first seasons at those schools.
“If guys go back to the dorm at night, watch games together and bond, and show up with that type of effort and that type of focus and play that hard, we’ll win our share of games this year,” Hurley said. “We’ll put ourselves in position to win enough games to make progress. There’s obviously a gap between us and competitive teams that we play. We have to keep closing that gap.
“We’re not close to where (teams like the Knights) are right now.”
Baby steps are, indeed, small.