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UConn men’s basketball loses another heartbreaker at No. 25 Houston, 63-59

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It was a bizarre game with 54 fouls called as the Huskies squandered a late lead.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

On the final leg of a brutal three-game stretch, the UConn men’s basketball team saved its most heartbreaking and bizarre loss for last. The Huskies came up short against the 25th-ranked University of Houston, 63-59, to fall to 10-8 on the season and 1-4 in the American Athletic Conference. It was a disjointed yet intense conference tilt that somehow saw UConn walk-on Temi Aiyegbusi attempting the final shot to tie it as time expired.

Senior Christian Vital led UConn with 14 points while junior Isiah Whaley turned in a career high 13 points to go with 11 rebounds for his first ever double-double. But the story of the night was the officials; the game featured an unfathomable 54 fouls, as well as several controversial plays that left many on both sides scratching their heads.

Despite four whistles on the game’s first four possessions, UConn’s defense held tough early. They got stops after tightening up their ball screen defense, and easy buckets from two breakaway Christian Vital steals. The refs were quick to whistle the physicality both ways, which led to both teams shooting in the bonus with 9:08 left.

Some positive post play from Isaiah Whaley — who didn’t play the last game vs. Villanova — were critical, especially with Josh Carlton called for three quick fouls. UConn took a four point lead after a Gilbert-to-Bouknight alley oop, but ticky-tack fouls on both ends kept things tight.

A deep three from Christian Vital gave UConn a five-point lead after ending a half that featured five ties and seven lead changes. At least for one half, UConn kept the Cougars off the boards, holding a slight rebounding edge. But overall, it was a choppy, sloppy game that was robbed of any flow on both sides because the refs were incompetent. For them to call 23 fouls —seven illegal screens — in the first half is absolutely disgraceful.

There’s a reason why so many are disenchanted with the college game, and the way that first half was called was a prime example. Rant aside, the Huskies deserve credit for grinding and playing with consistent emotion when the refs did their best to ruin the flow of competition.

After UConn opened up its lead to seven early in the second half, there was a chance to really put the Cougars down. But a couple of missed bunnies from Vital and Carlton prevented the Huskies from doing so, and then Vital picked up his third foul early. UConn flashed some 2-3 zone after having success with it in the first half’s final possession, and mixing it in with man gave Houston some trouble on offense.

Houston hung around because UConn’s dribble hand-offs failed to create open looks. After Jalen Gaffney was called for a turnover, an incensed Dan Hurley was whistled for a technical, despite Houston’s Brison Gresham clapping in the face of Gaffney.

UConn alternated between zone or a suffocating man that hedged hard with double teams and disrupted Houston’s ball handlers. After Whaley made a heady play on a loose ball, Bouknight let loose this thunderous lefty slam on the break to put UConn up six.

After a bizarre double-technical for (we’re still not sure), James Bouknight fouled out with 5:56 left. Alterique Gilbert quieted (literally) the crowd with a deep three, but then missed two free throws and turned the ball over twice on the ensuing possessions to keep the Cougars within one. With both teams in the double bonus at the five minute mark, it looked to be a free throw contest down the stretch.

A Whaley tip-in tied it back up at 1:04, a but Houston guard Caleb Mills hit turnaround fade-away off one leg, and a blocked Vital layup at the rim left UConn once more trying to lengthen the game.

With Houston up six and the game seemingly out of reach, Jalen Gaffney went coast-to-coast for a layup and timeout. Then the real insanity began.

Cougar guard DeJon Jarreau got whistled for a technical for some remarks to Dan Hurley walking past the huddle. Jalen Gaffney hit the two free throws, and then UConn forced a five-second inbound violation to get the ball right back. With seven seconds left, a series of unlikely events led to Aiyegbusi getting the ball with an open look after a pump fake. His game-tying attempt rattled out.

It was a bizarre ending to a bizarre game.

It was an absolutely gutting loss because every time Houston mounted a rally, UConn responded. For a while, it looked like it would be the game where the Huskies finally got over the hump and earned a road win against a quality foe. But a lack of halfcourt execution ended up putting too much pressure on the defense, and UConn walked away once more in disbelief. You also have to feel for Aiyegbusi, who was thrust into a tough situation ice-cold and just nearly became the hero.

***

Now to the positives. Houston demolishes teams on the glass and ranks first in the country in rebounding percentage. UConn held tough on that front most of the game. In a contest marred by constant whistles, the Huskies kept their intensity and toughness at Hurley’s desired level. UConn hadn’t played three-straight ranked opponents in 21 years, and you have to be encouraged by the little things during this grueling stretch.

The players flat out fought these last three games against very good teams, and it’s devastating that they don’t have anything to show for it.

UConn fans can look to the individual performances of role players Whaley and Sidney Wilson lately. You can point to the continued flashes of dominance from James Bouknight. The defensive potential of the team next year with Akok Akok progressing. There are signs for optimism everywhere you look, as long as you don’t look in the win column. But that’s life in this stage of #theprocess, and better days are ahead.

Next up, the Huskies return home to the XL Center to take on Tulsa — tied for first in the AAC as of this moment — on Sunday, Jan. 26 at noon ET in a game that will be televised on CBS Sports Network.