UConn shocked by Wagner in season-opener
STORRS – Since it opened in 1990, Gampel Pavilion’s annual home opener has been a night of celebration for the UConn men’s basketball team, with the Huskies incredibly winning all 27 openers in the history of the building entering this season.
The streak, though, was in serious jeopardy with 53 seconds left in the first game of the 2016-17 campaign. Trailing by six points, Jalen Adams attempted to foul Wagner’s burly, 6-foot-8, 260-pound center Mike Aaman without allowing him to get off a shot. It didn’t work. Aaman powered through Adams, made the shot and, Adams, in frustration, slammed his hands on the floor.
The 9,523 in attendance then quietly streamed to the exits, as Wagner, nine-point underdogs from the Northeast Conference, pulled off a shocking 67-58 victory. It was UConn's first overall loss on opening night since 1999.
Sure, it’s only one game, and it’s easy to over-react. But for the 18th-ranked Huskies, losing on their home floor to a team from a lower-end Division I conference is a hard pill to swallow.
“I don’t think we came out with the same intensity as we did the last exhibition game,” said Adams, who shot only 4-of-15 while scoring nine points. “We got down on ourselves and let that affect our defense. We allowed them to take control, and we have to do a better job than that.”
UConn’s starting unit of Adams, Kentan Facey, Amida Brimah, Rodney Purvis, and Terry Larrier struggled mightily as a group. They fell behind 21-11 early, and after the Huskies pulled within three at halftime, they promptly let the deficit rise to 12, thanks to bad shooting, poor offensive spacing, and a lack of rebounding. Larrier had the best game of the starters, scoring a game-high 19 points on 6-of-12 shooting with seven rebounds. Purvis scored only five points and struggled to keep his man in front of him on defense, while Facey and Brimah, who each have limited range, combined for only two field goals (both Brimah dunks) in three attempts and seven rebounds in 40 minutes.
“We’ve got to play better,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “We can’t have our two top guards (Adams and Purvis) shoot 6-of-22. I count on those guys, both of them can’t have a bad night. We’ve (also) got to get something going in the low post a little bit more.”
“We started small," noted Larrier. "We have to be serious about it and bring the energy."
To provide a spark, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Ollie inserts freshman guard Alterique Gilbert into the starting lineup Monday night against Northeastern. Gilbert had a strong college debut with 14 points in 35 minutes, second on the team only to Adams’ 37 minutes. Displaying an ability to shoot from the outside, drive and finish in the paint, as well as command the offense, Gilbert will see a considerable amount of action no matter what role he is in.
“I think Al was a real bright spot for us,” Ollie said. “I thought he played very, very well and played with a lot of heart.”
“I felt alright, but I just don’t feel good about myself because we lost,” added Gilbert. “We need to pick up our energy and intensity level. It starts on defense. We’ll definitely learn from this and get better from it.”
After falling behind by 12, the Huskies went on a 12-0 run to tie it, and during that stretch, Wagner’s Romone Saunders, its leading scorer with 15, left with an ankle injury and didn’t return.
Marquis Salmon, however, answered with a three, his only basket of the night, with 6:19 left and the Seahawks, remarkably, never trailed again. UConn led only once at 2-0 as Wagner never backed down and didn’t get rattled when it appeared the Huskies were ready to take control.
“Wagner played a great game, they made threes (nine total), and they did a great job getting their players ready,” Ollie said. “(They have) a really good team and they are going to win some tough games over the rest of their season.”
The Seahawks won 23 games last season, won their league’s regular season crown, and made it to the second round of the NIT. They were not fazed with Gampel’s loud and intimidating atmosphere.
“The only way we had a chance to be in the game was to control the tempo, and take care of the ball,” Wagner coach Bashir Mason said. “Tonight, we were able to pull off probably one of the greatest victories in our school’s history. I’m really proud and excited for our guys.”
UConn needs to shake off the sting of this surprise quickly with a game coming up shortly on Monday. A long two days of practice, which will undoubtedly feature offensive drills, awaits.
“I have to get these guys to play better,” Ollie said. “I take full responsibility. We’ve been through some tough times and we’ll make it through this.”
That is an outlook rarely heard after a UConn season-opener.