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UConn men’s basketball loses to St. John’s, 74-70

Poor free-throw shooting and lackluster defensive effort plagued the Huskies as they let a 14-point lead evaporate before giving it away in the second half.

NCAA Basketball: St. John at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

No. 23 UConn men’s basketball could not overcome missed free throws, layups, and ugly turnovers in a rough loss to St. John’s, 74-70, at Gampel Pavilion on Monday afternoon.

UConn (7-2, 4-2 Big East) lost its first game in nearly a month as poor inside shooting and weak defense late in the game killed them. The Huskies held an eight-point lead with 8:50 left and lost the lead for good with 4:18 remaining.

“Brutal loss, credit St. John’s those guys they’re just relentlessly competitive and they were tougher than us, especially down the stretch of that game,” head coach Dan Hurley said.

The Huskies locked down the Big East’s leading scorer, Julian Champagnie, for most of the game but he started to turn it on late. Champagnie finished with 12 points, his lowest total on the season so far. Freshman Posh Alexander was the Red Storm’s most potent offensive weapon in his place, scoring 18 to go along with six assists and four boards.

Cole ignited the Huskies’ offense early, hitting four quick threes in the first half. He dished five assists and grabbed three boards as he finished with 18 points. Overall he looked good offensively and found open spaces for shots off the catch.

Adama Sanogo had his best in-conference game yet, scoring 12 points on 6-11 shooting, but didn’t play for a large chunk of the second half, much to the frustration of the UConn fans watching. After the game, Hurley said it was because St. John’s was playing four guards to finish the game. Sanogo put in good work in the paint, displaying a tantalizing offensive touch offensively.

Tyrese Martin quietly had one of his better games, with a career-high six steals and 14 points, but he missed a pair of free throws late that could have put UConn in a position to win. Hurley wasn’t happy with his shooting performance, though.

“We need more than 4-11 from Tyrese with James [Bouknight] out, we’re going to need better than that to win Big East games,” Hurley said.

UConn rode Cole’s hot shooting to an early 21-7 lead. But the Huskies let the lead slowly slip away, struggling to score for minutes at a time and ending the half up, 35-32.

Most importantly, UConn held Big East-leading scorer Julian Champagnie to just three first-half points – all from free throws. They cleaned the glass early on as well, finishing the half with 10 offensive rebounds – largely because they shot just 28.6% from 2-point range in the half.

The second half was like a slow fall down a flight of stairs. The Huskies didn’t bring the energy on defense, letting Posh Alexander and Marcus Earlington beat them over and over off the dribble. Despite the sloppiness, and the Martin free-throw misses, Martin hit a three and St. John’s missed a free throw to give UConn a chance to re-take the lead or tie with one possession left. But a Tyler Polley three-point attempt missed everything to seal the loss.

This was is a disappointing defeat that should be a wake-up call for the Huskies since St. John’s had yet to beat a top-90 KenPom team until Monday. They shot an abysmal 15-23 (65%) from the charity stripe and missed far too many layups and easy shots as well.

UConn had been doing okay without James Bouknight, they had won essentially three straight games without him before Monday. St. John’s was the worse team and UConn just didn’t do what it takes to win. Luckily, the NCAA Tournament committee tends to be generous with bad losses when a roster isn’t at full strength.

The Huskies’ next game will be Jan. 23 at No. 11 Creighton at 2:30 p.m. on FOX. They had been scheduled to play Xavier at home on Jan. 20 but it was postponed because of Covid-19 issues.