In a tense, emotionally-charged battle, the No. 24 UConn men’s basketball team came up short the against the No. 25 Xavier Musketeers Friday night 64-78. The Huskies fall to 16-7 and 7-5 in the Big East. RJ Cole led UConn with 22 points, while Tyrese Martin added 18. Adama Sanogo chipped in 11 points and eight rebounds, but was mostly held in check by Xavier’s frontline and dealt with foul trouble for most of the first half.
The Cincinnati crowd was rabid ahead of the Super Bowl, with orange Why Not Us t-shirts and a general pent-up feverishness creating quite the homecourt advantage. After a statement win at home versus Marquette, UConn had a chance to build some serious momentum in a brutal portion of their schedule with a quad 1 road gem, but fell short after losing the points in the paint battle 36-24.
“We lost the game with our defense on (Jack) Nunge and not guarding (Paul) Scruggs off the dribble in the second half,” lamented head coach Dan Hurley.
And on the offensive end?
“You can’t botch up transition opportunities. We had so many two, three-on-ones, four-on-ones that turned into bizarre finishes at the rim,” Hurley said.
The two teams combined to score 19 points in the first 10 minutes, the very definition of a rock fight. With Sanogo picking up two early fouls, Hurley went with all sorts of different lineups, including ones with Jordan Hawkins and Tyler Polley and another with Cole and Jalen Gaffney. A step back three from the latter gave UConn a five point lead, but foul trouble from Cole kept X in it.
Bounces finally were going UConn’s way; Hawkins got a Ryan-Hawkins-style roll on a three, and a Jackson pull-up received the same treatment. Still, thanks to a combined 19 points from Nate Johnson and 7-foot-1 Iowa transfer Jack Nunge, the Muskies finished the half up three after a Johnson three at the buzzer.
All things considered, with UConn only being down three with Sanogo and Cole combining to play just 10 minutes, the Huskies weren’t in a bad position to pick up a win.
At halftime, the Huskies likely expected the rebounding and points in the paint totals that the Muskies won in the first half would shift with Sanogo back inside unhindered by foul trouble. And the inspired play from Gaffney was a big bright spot.
Scruggs — an unanimous preseason all-Big East First Team selection — came out of the half attacking downhill with six quick points. Cole picked up his third foul quickly, and the Muskies stretched their lead to 10 after a series of disjointed UConn possessions ending in turnovers. The Huskies desperately needed some outside shooting to open up driving lanes. Sure enough, two threes from Cole and one from Martin brought UConn back to life.
Xavier had an answer for every UConn run though, and in the second half it was Zach Freemantle who feasted inside on mismatches. To show how much the Huskies lost the battle inside; Sanogo picked up his first basket of the half with just under eight to play. The three-point barrage that kept UConn around dried up, and Xavier was given too many easy looks around the rim.
With UConn within five, Hurley was whistled for a technical. It was an ill-advised time for a tech, with UConn one stop away from making it a one-possession game, and Hurley had been warned a few minutes earlier.
Down eight with 2:57 to play, two-straight transition buckets halved Xavier’s lead. A Jackson trey cut it to three, but after forcing a turnover, Jackson was whistled for a tech after the ball bounced off him under the rim, slamming the ball after getting hit out of bounds in mid-air. UConn tried to extend the game out, but fell short.
The Huskies went 8-24 from three, once again done in by cold outside shooting that then made it easy for Xavier to pack the paint and neutralize Sanogo. Any attempts to go high-low with Sanogo on the block were turned away.
“It’s tough with Nunge battling him for positon,” noted Hurley. “You can’t throw it over the top, you can’t angle it in. Any time you go out with two fouls, it was reminiscent of the Villanova game, and we couldn’t recover.”
The Musketeers also edged out UConn on the boards 35-31 and drew 24 fouls for 18 free throws.
The Huskies have a quick turnaround, heading to Madison Square Garden Sunday to take on St. John’s at noon on FS1. It seems like the hits keep coming, but Hurley will have the team focused.
“We’ve never been in a situation like this. Villanova, then Marquette, this war, then a team in St. John’s that hasn’t played for a couple days,” Hurley said. “It’s a challenge but this group really needs to respond. We’ll deal with the failure of today, break it down, and try to learn from it. We have to turn the page and try to walk away with a good week.”