NEW YORK – Going down the list of things that went wrong for UConn Friday night, it will give the impression that the Huskies were blown off the floor by Marquette in the Big East Tournament semifinals.
Jordan Hawkins and Tristen Newton combined to shoot 4-of-21. The Huskies had severe communication issues guarding the three-point line. Andre Jackson fouled out and only played 14:30. Adama Sanogo had 19 points and 11 rebounds but was a game-worst minus-11.
Yet, the Huskies, with a history of glorious moments in this tournament at Madison Square Garden, had the ball down two with eight seconds remaining versus the sixth-ranked team in the nation. This night, however, would not align with the classics Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Kemba Walker created.
UConn’s final possession was sloppy with Jordan Hawkins handed the ball too late and heavily guarded. His desperation three at the top of the key fell woefully short and Marquette survived, 70-68, to reach the title game against Xavier, which defeated Creighton in the other semifinal.
For the Huskies (25-8), the NCAA Tournament is up next. Recent projections have them heading to the East Region in Albany, followed by a potential return trip to MSG. But first, a reflection on a night of missed opportunities.
“Just to be back in the semis for the third straight year and to have three pretty excruciating losses (is tough),” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “We were hell-bent on playing for a championship tomorrow. With all due to respect to Marquette, we know how outstanding they are. They have a chance to be a Final Four team or better. We knew what we were up against, but we also know we have a special team.”
The Golden Eagles (27-6) came out of halftime on fire, breaking a 30-30 tie and opening up a 10-point lead, powered by Big East Player of the Year Tyler Kolek (17 points, six assists), David Joplin (17 points) and Kam Jones (14 points).
“We knew playing UConn that we’d have to make adjustments and fight like crazy to get offensive rebounds,” Marquette coach Shaka Smart said. “We did that just enough.”
Desperate for answers, Hurley inserted Donovan Clingan and Joey Calcaterra, who each provided a spark. Clingan closed down the paint defensively, while adding seven points and five rebounds and was a team-best plus-nine in only 9:41.
“The bench was big,” Hurley said. “It’s been a big part of how we’ve been able to have the season we’ve had.”
The Huskies tied the game on Calcaterra’s three with 9:26 left, making it 60-all. From there, it was a major struggle for both teams as Sanogo’s lay-up with 2:38 pulled UConn within two. Neither team scored again.
Calcaterra missed two open threes in the final 1:23 before Hawkins missed at the buzzer. Ultimately, this loss won’t hurt UConn’s NCAA Tournament seeding or location. That is pretty much firm. You wouldn’t have known that, though, in the moment as Hawkins dejectedly walked back to the locker room and the massive Connecticut following in the stands stood in stunned silence. It meant something.
“We said in the locker room after the game that it was a Sweet 16 type of game,” Clingan said. “Every game starting next week is going to feel like that. We must learn from this game and not let it carry over to the NCAA Tournament.”
“This prepped us a lot, playing in an environment where it’s win or go home,” added Jackson. “We feel that pain right now and moving forward we’re definitely going to play with more of an edge and not allow the things that beat us today to happen again. That would not be the right way to end this season.”
Hurley plans on a different approach heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament compared to the past two seasons.
“We’re not going to do what our past teams have done, which was to maybe get caught up in the wallow of losing,” Hurley said. “The Big East Tournament is such a big deal. The crowd is unbelievable. The atmosphere is incredible. Losing in this environment in the past couple of years has put us in a bad mental state. We’re going to get our minds right very quickly and get ready to make a run next week.”
This week, despite the final result, was a great test run for the Huskies.