A strong performance from SMU proved too much for UConn to overcome, as the Huskies fell to the Mustangs, 80-73, in Orlando at the first round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament on Thursday afternoon.
SMU (17-15), playing without top two scorers Shake Milton and Jarrey Foster, was still able to score above its season average thanks to a first-half hot streak and a low turnover total. Eventually playing with only five scholarship athletes, even a tired Mustangs squad held on to the lead until the final buzzer.
The Huskies (14-18) struggled to get scoring from their typical stars, as Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier combined for more turnovers than made shots, with each giving the ball up five times while Larrier shot 5-17 from the floor and Adams made only three of his eleven attempts.
UConn struggled early, allowing a 9-2 SMU run to start the game, but a combination of easy Mamadou Diarra baskets and active hands on defense made sure the Huskies didn’t collapse in the opening minutes. After a slight comeback, UConn went cold midway through the first half, letting the Mustangs score nine straight while Kevin Ollie struggled to find a lineup that worked.
As the Huskies’ cold streak extended through the rest of the first half, they also found it difficult to stop the Mustangs on the other end. UConn shot .379 from the floor in the first half, missing all seven three-point attempts and making only one of four free throws. Meanwhile, SMU had made over half its shots overall, and committed only one turnover in the last fifteen minutes of the opening period.
With a 19-point halftime deficit, UConn needed to come out of the locker room strong, and went on a quick run to start the second half, scoring ten quick points (four off turnovers) to shrink the lead SMU lead down to ten points by the first official timeout.
A poor lineup change, taking Diarra off the court, led to bad defensive play from the Huskies, though, and the Mustangs responded to UConn’s comeback with 10 straight points of their own. But Mamadou went back in, continuing to play well on both ends of the court, and Vital briefly got hot to get the Huskies back within a dozen.
But the UConn defense just never got on the same page, as flawed decision-making and miscommunication led to open shots and free throws for SMU. While the Mustangs outpaced the Huskies in scoring for a while, a 15-2 UConn run over the span of four minutes let the Huskies back in the game, getting within single digits with two minutes left to play.
With 1:20 to go, a driving Christian Vital layup pushed the lead to six points, but more defensive issues led to a wide open dunk for SMU. And when dominant SMU center Akoy Agau missed a free throw, Antwoine Anderson responded with a three—off an offensive rebound—to make the lead only four points, as an injury to Agau forced him out of the game.
That was as close as the Huskies could get, however, and the Mustangs closed out the game in the final minute, following a pair of missed threes from Larrier and Adams.
Vital paced the Huskies with 24 efficient points, and Anderson’s 19 were even better on a per-possession basis, as both were big factors in the UConn comeback effort. Diarra added eight points off the bench, and his eight rebounds were the high mark for the Huskies.
Ben Emelogu led the Mustangs with 23 points and eight rebounds, both team-high numbers, Agau scored 21, and Jahmal McMurray added 19. SMU will face Cincinnati in the quarterfinal round of the AAC Tournament on Friday.
UConn now faces an offseason filled with questions. Will there be a change at the top? Are any players leaving? How is recruiting being impacted? It’s sure to be an interesting offseason.