HARTFORD – The two words kept circling back throughout the postgame press conferences of UConn coach Dan Hurley and Providence coach Ed Cooley: fight and battle.
Back in the heart of Big East life, the Huskies, who got a taste of it in last year’s on-again, off-again schedule, know how difficult conference play is in this league. Their 57-53 loss to the Friars at a packed and rowdy XL Center perfectly showcased the fine line between being a ranked team and not.
Ranked 20th in the nation going in, UConn (9-3) will probably be out of the Top 25 come Monday. Providence, unranked with an 11-1 record, will more than likely find their way in. Expect more flip-flopping over the next 19 Big East conference games.
“I can’t say it enough. The Big East is a monster, man,” Cooley said. “I’m very biased and I know there’s some great teams across the country in other leagues. But I’ve been a Big East guy my whole life. I don’t think we get enough respect nationally for the depth of this league.”
The Friars took control at the end of the first, turning a tie game into a 16-point lead, thanks to 17-1 run that spilled into the second half. UConn, playing without star center Adama Sanogo, got pushed around in the paint by Ed Croswell and Nate Watson, who combined for 21 points and 11 rebounds. A.J. Reeves hit four three-pointers and scored 16 points. They also held the Huskies to a paltry 31 percent from the field, including an ugly 8-of-29 from three, on the strength of a 2-3 zone that gave UConn fits.
“In a game like this, where you know it’s going to be a low scoring game, getting down 16 is where we lost the game,” Hurley said. “Credit Providence. They screwed us up in the first half with switching a lot of things, which is something that we’ve had some difficulty with.
“It was a rock fight. It was two really physical, good defensive teams that played really hard.”
While it was far from pretty, the Huskies slowly clawed their way back into the game, frustrating Providence with a full-court press, led by Andre Jackson, who Cooley called a “young Scottie Pippen.” Jackson was all over the place defensively, grabbing 12 rebounds on that end of court and finishing with 14 overall.
Jackson hit a three to cut the lead to six with 8:30 left. Finally, with 1:11 remaining, UConn had a shot for the lead, but Tyrese Martin, returning from a wrist injury, missed from the outside. Reeves then scored on a lay-up to all but seal the win.
Hurley did not use the excuse of Sanogo’s injury for the loss, but did note how much better of a team UConn is with him. Starting in his place, Akok Akok had a rough go, not scoring in 15 minutes and was a minus-14. The Huskies’ bench didn’t fare any better, getting outscored 20-4, with the trio of Tyler Polley, Jalen Gaffney and Jordan Hawkins combining to shoot 1-of-13.
“We had our opportunities to win this game and we’re disappointed,” said R.J. Cole, who led UConn with 16 points and eight assists, while committing only one turnover. “The whole league is like this. There are not going to be any cupcake games. All 20 games in the league are going to be hard fought.”
UConn has a quick turnaround and will be in Milwaukee to face Marquette on Tuesday.
“We’re going to watch this, we’ll be sick to our stomach, then quickly reboot and understand we have 19 more of these (conference games),” Hurley said. “We’re as good as anyone in the league.”
Cooley agreed with that last statement.
“UConn is going to be really good. I mean damn good,” he said. “One game doesn’t define what’s going to happen down the stretch.”
That is true, but life is not going to get any easier for the Huskies or for anyone in this league. There are a lot more battles to come.