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UConn men’s basketball falls to Memphis, 70-63

The Huskies hung around but couldn’t pull through in a sloppy game against the Tigers.

NCAA Basketball: Connecticut at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Even after a strong performance against Temple, UConn couldn’t keep the momentum rolling on the road against Memphis and fell back to their old ways. Despite playing tough with the Tigers for the full 40 minutes, the Huskies didn’t have enough gas in the tank to overcome a sloppy performance.

In a game that featured more turnovers (44) than field goals (43), UConn hung around largely thanks to Christian Vital, who scored 12 of his 20 points in the second half. After Vital hit a 3-pointer and then a pair of free throws on the very next possession, UConn held a 56-55 lead with 4:32 to play.

From there, the Huskies’ offense, which scored 31 fast break points on the day, couldn’t get any more of them as the Tigers cleaned up their act down the stretch. Without any way to get out in transition, the Huskies failed score from the field for nearly four minutes, relying on five made throws to stay in contention.

UConn would not score from the field again until a dunk from James Bouknight with 30 seconds left. By that time, Memphis used an 11-5 run to put the game out reach, largely thanks to four free throws from Alex Lomax and three from Lester Quinones. While Bouknight’s dunk made it a four-point game at 67-63, Memphis would tack on three free throws in the final 30 seconds to win 70-63 and drop the Huskies to 11-10 on the season and 2-6 in the American.

While another close loss is certainly tough to stomach for the Huskies, they once again managed to compete with a talented opponent for most of the game. UConn trailed by as much as seven early in the first half before rattling off a 10-0 run to lead 18-15 with 8:13 left in the first half. The two teams would trade baskets throughout the rest of the half, but a 3-pointer from Brendan Adams and a layup from Isaiah Whaley helped UConn take a 31-30 lead into halftime in what was a strong but sloppy 20 minutes of play for the Huskies.

After missing the Temple game due to personal reasons, Alterique Gilbert returned to the team and came off the bench for the first time this season. In slightly less minutes than usual, Gilbert turned in one of his more solid performances of the season, scoring 10 points with three assists and only two turnovers. For the first time all season, the redshirt junior guard drastically outplayed Jalen Gaffney, who struggled in his second career start with zero points on 0-6 shooting and no assists in 27 minutes.

Outside of Vital and Gilbert, Bouknight was the only other Husky in double figures with 17 points in 36 minutes. Bouknight, along with the rest of the team, struggled in the paint against a team filled with great shot blockers - the Tigers blocked 10 of UConn’s shot and the Huskies shot just 36.5 percent on shots inside the 3-point line. Of course, UConn wasn’t really any better from beyond the arc, shooting 29 percent from three.

While UConn won’t be facing elite shot blocking teams every night, they will need to continue to push for easy baskets off turnovers and on the break if they want to keep up with any talented team. With the Huskies struggling so mightily from three without Tyler Polley and shooting just 30 percent from deep in their last three games, Bouknight, Vital, Gilbert and Gaffney will need to continue to pressure opponents into turnovers for easy baskets.

And, although it’s easier said than done, they have to make those easy baskets. While it doesn’t happen often, the Huskies missed four dunks today, all in the first half. Akok Akok was responsible for three of those, and while it’s never due to lack of effort with him, getting him going offensively is a key part of the Huskies’ success.

Of course, Akok had his hands full Saturday against a great shot blocking team on offense and was tasked with containing Precious Achiuwa, one of the NCAA’s best freshmen, on the defensive end. Achiuwa posted 16 points and eight rebounds, but wasn’t a crucial factor during the game’s final stretch.

UConn returns to action with a road matchup against Tulsa on Thursday, Feb. 6 at the Reynolds Center. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m.