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UConn men’s basketball comes up just short at No. 5 Kansas, 69-65

Most of the Huskies struggled except for Tristen Newton, who dropped a career-high 31 points.

Tristen Newton drives to the lane
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

In its first top-five clash since 2009, No. 4 UConn men’s basketball fell behind early and grabbed a second-half lead but couldn’t finish the job at No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks, falling 69-65.

UConn (7-1) suffered its first non-conference defeat in 25 games. The team has Tristen Newton and his career-high 31 points to thank for keeping this game competitive. Alex Karaban chipped in 10 points before fouling out and was 4-of-11 from the field. Donovan Clingan anchored UConn down low with eight points and seven rebounds, playing 32 minutes.

The Huskies fought through a lot of adversity in the road environment. Already missing Stephon Castle, UConn also had a couple of other guys not at 100 percent. Cam Spencer and Donovan Clingan appeared to be hampered by lower-body issues. After surviving an initial rush to start the game, UConn fought back.

The Huskies didn’t help their cause by hitting just eight of 15 from the free-throw line and allowing a 21-point, three of four from three performance from Kevin McCullar, a 30 percent shooter from downtown in his career.

Down 11 early — their steepest deficit since the Xavier game at Gampel last year — the Huskies initially looked rattled in their first true road test, unable to run any of their sets amid the Jayhawks’ ball pressure. Newton had scored UConn’s only points until a Solomon Ball three at 13:18. If it wasn’t for some bailout, prayer threes from Hassan Diarra and Ball, and some heroics from Newton late in the shot clock, UConn would’ve been run out of the gym.

It was a miracle the deficit wasn’t bigger at the half. UConn was shooting under 40 percent from the field through 20 minutes while Kansas was hitting over 50. Defensively, KU switched everything on defense, sealed off Clingan, and reduced UConn’s ball handlers to side-to-side passes. On offense, KJ Adams and Kevin McClullar’s athleticism took advantage of mismatches on Karaban and Spencer.

Yet for as much as the first half wasn’t the party hangout UConn fans hoped for, the Huskies entered the break only down seven, and at the very least a clear idea of what worked—Newton operating in pick-and-rolls with Clingan. In his halftime interview on ESPN, Dan Hurley said, “it feels like we won the lottery. We’re settling too much for outside shots and need to establish a presence inside.”

The Huskies came out with the memory of a goldfish and quickly cut the lead to two thanks to some gutsy play, including from Spencer, Karaban, and Clingan despite their overall struggles. No longer fazed by the crowd and Jayhawk ball pressure, UConn followed the lead of its point guard with inspired, composed play. Despite Spencer and Clingan nursing injuries, Karaban in foul trouble, and some questionable calls, UConn chants echoed across the Phog after a 10-1 run put the good guys up five.

A quick stint of double bigs with Samson Johnson and Clingan proved ineffective, and Kansas responded with an 11-0 run of its own thanks to three straight threes from McCullar and Dickinson. Down four with two minutes left and Alex Karaban fouled out, Hurley and the coaching staff threw a slew of defenses at Kansas to extend the game.

A 1-3-1 halfcourt trap offered a different look, but a baseline three from McCullar stretched the lead to six. Not to be deterred, Newton drew a foul on a three-point attempt and hit three free throws to bring the deficit back to three with 56 seconds left.

In true yin-yang fashion that defined the whole game, a 1-2-2 press created a Kansas turnover, but Hassan Diarra got the ball poked off him driving the lane, giving the ball back to the Jayhawks.

A quick two from Newton kept it a one-possession game after two missed free throws from DeJuan Harris. Spencer had a chance to win it with five seconds left, but the hobbled sniper front-rimmed the attempt. You can’t blame UConn’s leading scorer for the look—Kansas went for the steal and Spencer was wide open.

When the opposing team shoots nine of 14 from three at home, it’s going to be hard to win. Kansas’ 64.3% clip was its seventh-best three-point shooting night of checks notes the last 30 years.

After a rough start, UConn eventually won the rebounding, points in the paint, and second-chance points battle. Donovan Clingan battled Hunter Dickinson down low, the only difference being the latter’s improved range as the KU star finished with 15 points and nine rebounds. The Huskies turned the ball over eight times in a hostile road environment, tying the home team. They also now realize they have one of the best point guards in the country in Newton.

Dan Hurley will surely feel a different way, and likely see a win that slipped away, but this was an invaluable experience for an undermanned UConn team, which performed well against adversity and proved that it’s worthy of the national stage it took on Friday night.

Up next, UConn is back in Madison Square Garden to take on UNC in the Jimmy V Classic. Tip-off is at 9 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.