Ice-cold Huskies fall to SMU for second time this season
STORRS – Walking off the floor following UConn’s second loss of the season to Southern Methodist, a despondent Shabazz Napier looked up at Gampel Pavilion’s signature white ceiling and screamed an expletive in disgust.
With good reason.
Napier made only five of 16 shots with five turnovers and his Huskies shot a miserable 29.6 percent from the floor in falling to the Mustangs, 64-55, on a day when UConn’s 1999 championship team was honored.
Meanwhile, on the other side, SMU’s Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown was in a celebratory mood. The 73-year old high-fived several of the SMU fans that made the trip and even hugged a few on his way back to the locker room.
It was a huge win for SMU (21-6, 10-4 AAC), a team in much need of a quality road victory with the postseason looming. The Mustangs are 14-0 at home and have struggled on the road, falling to the likes of South Florida and Temple. Their stifling defense was the reason why they won Sunday and why they are a strong candidate for an NCAA Tournament berth.
“We beat a great team today,” said Brown, in his second season at SMU after 24 years away from the college game. “We had to play, by far, our best game on the defensive end to win this and I think we did.”
UConn (21-9, 9-5 AAC) never led and was never able to get any separation from the Mustangs’ swarming man-to-man pressure. Along with Napier’s struggles, Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels combined to miss 17 of 22 shots.
Nic Moore and Nick Russell, who had 15 points apiece to lead SMU, gave the UConn guards fits from start to finish. The Huskies were scoreless in the first 6:14 of the contest and fell behind 7-0. They rallied back to tie the game at 25 at the end of the half, but Markus Kennedy knocked down two free throws with 22 seconds remaining and SMU played in front the rest of the way.
When the Huskies lost at SMU on Jan. 4, it was considered an upset by many. Not on Sunday, though.
“They’ve got a good group of guys over there, and they play hard and they play together,” said UConn coach Kevin Ollie, who played for Brown on the 2000-01 76ers team that reached the NBA Finals. “They’re long and they’re aggressive. Nic Moore is a tough-headed point guard and they go 10 (players) deep.
“They know (Brown’s) system and they trust each other,” he continued. “We’ve got to get to that point where we trust each other.”
Despite their struggles, the 21st-ranked Huskies somehow had a chance after Napier scored four straight points to bring them within five at the 4:36 mark. Following a steal by Amida Brimah, Daniels missed a three-pointer, though, and Sterling Brown followed with a three of his own to bring SMU’s lead back up to eight.
Moore then put a wrap on this one with an acrobatic lay-up over Brimah and Daniels with 1:53 to go, sending most of the sellout crowd to the exits.
“We have to play better,” Ollie said bluntly. “I’m looking at our starters – Shabazz five for 16, Ryan three for 12, DeAndre two for 10. Man, there were a lot of missed shots. You can’t win like that.”
After the game, Brown joked that Jim Calhoun gave him only a “half-assed wave” from his baseline seat and raved about Ollie, calling him “as good (a teammate) to ever put on a uniform.”
It’s obvious, because of their relationship, Ollie and Brown would rather not face each other in such competition. That’s not an option, however, and Ollie thinks his team will be ready for a potential third matchup this season at the AAC Tournament.
“We’ll get there,” Ollie said. “We do it in spurts, but you have to do it for 40 minutes to beat a good team like SMU.
“We won’t shoot 29 percent ever again, hopefully, and if we face them in the tournament, hopefully we’ll be better prepared.”