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UConn men’s basketball stumbles against St. Joseph’s, 96-87

The Huskies were down as much as 27 in the first half, rallied, but ultimately came up short.

Dan Hurley’s UConn suffered a brutal loss to St. Joes
Ian Bethune/The UConn BLog

There would be no Amida Brimah bailout tonight. In a wacky, sloppy affair, the UConn men’s basketball team fell to Saint Joseph’s 96-87, falling to 1-1 on the season. It was an ugly, disjointed performance for the Huskies, with a historically awful first half that saw UConn down as much as 27. They made a furious comeback in the second half that ultimately fell short, as ineffective guard play was their undoing.

Christian Vital led UConn with 26 points and 16 rebounds while Alterique Gilbert added 22 of his own, but they had an abysmal night shooting. Freshman Akok Akok chipped in 12 points and nine rebounds.

Hurley had plenty to say about UConn’s slow start vs. Sacred Heart, but the message clearly did not resonate in their next game. The Huskies dug themselves a 14-0 hole and looked completely uninterested in being out there.

There wasn’t a single good look on offense, and the Hawks were able to run their offense with little resistance. It was a pathetic, listless first half that saw St. Joe’s lead swell to as much as 27.

St. Joe’s hawk mascot — who has to keep its wings flapping the entire game, even at the half — had its hands up today more than anyone in a UConn jersey.

St. Joe’s five-out lineup forced Hurley to go small, swapping Josh Carlton, Tyler Polley, and Akok Akok out for Isaiah Whaley, Sid Wilson and Brandon Adams. The Hawks kept things so well spread out that UConn couldn’t help off the first man.

The entire half can be summed up in one play: A St. Joe’s miss saw two UConn players go for the rebound but the ball bounced off both of them and the Hawks’ player laid it in.

St. Joe’s — paced by 30 points from Delaware transfer Ryan Daly — was unconscious from three, yes, but it’s pretty easy to bomb away when the defense isn’t putting up a fight. And on the rare occasion a UConn player got up in someones face to guard, the Hawks went right by them.

The Huskies were sloppy with the ball, didn’t close out shooters, or get back on defense. They missed free throws, went under screens and had too many possessions without a single pass. Not a single bench player scored in the first half.

UConn finally woke up a little with a 11-2 run at the end of the half. To underscore how bad a half it was, UConn looked a little relieved to only be down 16 at the break.

Not even a commitment from highly regarded big man Javonte Brown-Ferguson could boost the mojo. The 7’1 center, who announced his decision via Instagram at 8 p.m., will reclassify to the class of 2020 and join Andre Jackson next year at Storrs. Fortunately, he probably wasn’t watching tonight game and unfortunately he is not able to classify two grade levels and play immediately.

The hope was that St. Joe’s would cool off in the second half. But the dribble penetration kept giving UConn problems and the backcourt of Vital and Gilbert kept settling for awful shots. There was no rhythm to anything they did, and any momentum the Huskies could generate was immediately stalled by boneheaded plays. When UConn ramped up the ball pressure, Tolliver Freeman — a St. Joe’s walk-on — slithered past the defenders for a conventional three point play. At one point, UConn missed three consecutive threes on one possession.

But thanks to the Hawks’ persistent foul trouble and UConn’s press, the Huskies slowly chipped away at the lead. Once it got to within 10 with 9:15 left, the rally seemed on. Vital and Polley threes cut it to four, and St Joe’s jumpers were clanging out. Two Hawks fouled out and after an impressive steal and dunk from Akok Akok, it looked like UConn was going to steal a game they had no business winning.

However, poor decisions down the stretch — a silly Vital foul, a few costly turnovers — cost them the comeback. While Vital and Gilbert ended with solid-looking numbers, they shot 5-of-21 and 5-of-19 from the field, respectively.

St. Joe’s returned only one starter from last year and is coached by first-year man Billy Lange. Despite an inexperienced roster, his team played a near perfect first half and made enough winning plays at the end to secure the upset.

Almost 60 percent of St. Joe’s offense came from threes. But the Hawks also notched 36 points in the paint compared to UConn’s 14.

A 3 p.m. showdown against No. 15 Florida looms on Sunday and if UConn plays like it did today, it might be better on one’s stomach to watch football.