Undermanned Huskies give No. 9 Houston a run for its money
HARTFORD – Three minutes and twenty-three seconds remained and, somehow, against the ninth-ranked team in the country and with its starting backcourt out due to injury, UConn found itself in position to pull off a season-making upset.
The crowd of 10,059 at the XL Center could feel it as did UConn coach Dan Hurley, who nearly threw out his shoulders out of their sockets celebrating Sidney Wilson’s three which brought the Huskies within seven. UConn, once down 16 in the second half, just couldn’t overcome a Houston team that is rolling through the AAC.
Following Wilson’s shot, the Huskies were hurt by a premature shot clock violation call that killed a fast break for them which potentially could’ve cut the margin down to five. Houston then finished the deal at the foul line and escaped with a 71-63 win.
Hurley is on record saying there are no moral victories at UConn. Based off the program’s history, he’s right. Based off recent history, you can’t blame anyone for thinking this was one, just like Sunday’s hard fought loss at Memphis.
There are certainly better days ahead. A year ago, this probably ends in a 20-point-plus defeat, like many games that season did. Going out quietly is just not an option for Hurley, even if it doesn’t result in a win.
“We don’t do that anymore here,” Hurley said. “We show up and we play like UConn men. We might not be everything that we need to be in terms of being whole and being what UConn fans are used to seeing on the court, but we are not a bunch of cowards, we’re not soft. We’re tough, we’re improving, and we’re developing a culture here of not giving in.
“We’re competing, digging our heels in when things get hard, and showing what our character is. That’s who we have be."
The controversial call in question happened when Armoni Brooks’ desperation three at the end of the shot clock only hit the backboard. UConn grabbed the rebound and was off to the races, but the officials blew the play dead, calling a shot clock violation. One problem, though: there was still one second left on the shot clock when the Huskies retrieved the ball. The whistle stopped a fast break and any momentum the Huskies had.
Christian Vital, who led UConn with 15 points, did get to the foul line on that possession, but missed one of his free throws. The Huskies never got closer.
“Obviously, that’s a missed call and (Gerry Pollard, the ref) felt bad about it,” Hurley said.
“That’s a terrible rule,” noted Houston coach Kelvin Sampson. “Even if it was zero on the clock and the horn went off, they should just continue play.”
Vital, who kicked the press table on the baseline in frustration after the whistle was blown: “I am not going to comment on that. I don’t want to get in trouble.”
While the call hurt, it wasn’t the deciding factor. Up three at halftime, the Cougars (24-1, 11-1 AAC) came out inspired on the second half, led by DeJon Jarreau, who came off the bench and scored a team-high 18 points. Houston hit 11 of their 21 three-point attempts and shot 48 percent from the field.
UConn (13-12, 4-8 AAC), meanwhile, hurt itself at the foul line, making only 14-of-25.
“There was still a path to victory there, even though it was quite narrow,” Hurley said. “Bad second half start, and our free throw line performance cost us a chance to get a win that this group desperately wanted and needed. It would have been great for the program."
Josh Carlton struggled mightily at the line, going 4-for-10. He did finish with eight points and 10 rebounds. Wilson, seeing more playing time now, continues to improve, scoring 12 points with two steals, one block, and altered several other shots defensively. Without Jalen Adams (knee) and Alterique Gilbert (shoulder), UConn, simply, could not afford to make any mistakes. It did, committing 11 turnovers in addition to its foul line woes.
“We made too many mistakes to beat a team that has a chance to be in the Final Four,” Hurley said.
With the injuries and inexperience on the roster, along with a tough schedule ahead, UConn will struggle to make the NIT this season. Its record will be similar to last season’s disaster, but in the big picture, major progress has been made.
“This doesn’t resemble the UConn that everyone is used to seeing, but we’re obviously getting better,” Hurley said. “The young guys are showing that they have a future here. The culture is changing and we’re not laying down accepting defeat and playing like losers and softies. We don’t do that here.”
The Huskies didn’t do that Sunday at Memphis or in this game against Houston. That mentality alone will lead to more wins in the future and, ultimately, the restoration of a proud program.