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UConn Men’s Basketball Loses at Central Florida

In a game befitting the AAC’s most storied rivalry, the Huskies couldn’t overcome a rocky start on the road.

NCAA Basketball: Central Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

An excellent second-half performance from Jalen Adams wasn’t enough to overcome an incredibly shaky start as the UConn Huskies lost their rematch against UCF, 73-67, Thursday night.

The Huskies’ (12-9, 3-5 American) production suffered without Alterique Gilbert, as the standout guard missed the game, having damaged his oft-injured left shoulder in Saturday’s win over Wichita State.

Adams finished with 27 points while Christian Vital scored 13 in a game limited by foul trouble. Tarin Smith, filling in for Gilbert in the starting lineup, scored 11 points with a team-high four assists and no turnovers.

Turnovers and fouls once again limited the Huskies’ ability to pull ahead, ending a three-game streak of disciplined play. Two Huskies, including Josh Carlton, fouled out en route to allowing 36 free throw attempts, and the team gave the ball away 14 times.

Gilbert’s absence meant another player would have to step up in his absence, and Vital seemed to be the guy early, scoring the Huskies’ first five points. The UConn offense was listless in the first half, clearly adjusting to the lack of its sparkplug sophomore guard, as it took nearly eight minutes for someone other than Vital to score for the Huskies.

By the time Sidney Wilson scored to break the rest of the team’s cold streak, Vital was resting on the bench with two fouls, and UCF had already built up a 12-7 lead, which the Knights quickly extended to double digits, taking advantage of the Huskies’ shallower bench and a technical foul to Dan Hurley.

With or without Vital on the court, the Huskies struggled to solve the Knights’ zone defense. Adams, trying to recover from a 2-10 effort in these teams’ last matchup, limped to a 1-8 first half shooting effort with four turnovers. The Knights led 34-22 at the break.

The UConn offense performed better when aggressive and paced, as has been its preferred style all season, but the Knights’ zone and Fall’s threat in the interior stymied penetration attempts and quickly closed in on perimeter shooters.

A switch to an attacking, inside-out style of play benefited the UConn offense out of the locker room, and a pair of big treys from Adams and Tyler Polley cut the UCF lead to seven before the first official timeout. The Husky defense wasn’t quite as stout, though, and the Knights were able to hold off the first comeback effort.

Adams’ solo 5-0 run midway through the second half was wiped out by a pair of consecutive transition buckets for Central Florida, but Polley knocked down a corner three to keep the Huskies within single digits. Adams, in a reversal of his first half performance, led his team back into a competitive game, pushing the ball where it needed to be and opening up opportunities for teammates with well-placed drives.

With six minutes to go, Adams’ three pulled the Huskies within five, and immediately after a jump ball in UConn’s favor, he finished an alley-oop to get the game within one possession. The Huskies converted five straight field goal attempts, getting hot at just the right time in order to make the game a close one for seemingly the first time all night.

A questionable goaltending call on what appeared to be a clean Chad Brown block pulled the Huskies within two with as many minutes left, appearing to set up a tense finish. That is, until Aubrey Dawkins broke out of a slump in a big way, knocking down a huge three to keep the Knights ahead by two scores. That was it for the Huskies, as an ill-advised three hit the front of the rim, preventing UConn from ever getting back within one shot of tying the game.

The Knights were led by B.J. Taylor, who scored 21 points, and Collin Smith and Ceasar DeJesus each added 11. The Huskies once again neutralized Tacko Fall, but the Knights were able to grab eight offensive rebounds, eight more than they did in the teams’ first matchup. UCF has a week of rest before its next game, a home contest against Houston.

Carlton led all players with 11 rebounds, dishing out a pair of assists and swatting two shots, in a well-rounded showing. Despite Gilbert’s injury holding him out of the game, Hurley did not extend his bench, as both Isaiah Whaley and Mamadou Diarra sat out due to the coach’s decision. UConn hosts East Carolina at the XL Center in Hartford on Sunday afternoon.