For the third year in a row, UConn will not be playing on Saturday of the Big East Tournament after a 70-68 loss at the hands of top-seeded Marquette. These losses (to Creighton in 2021 and Villanova in 2022) were each by one possession and a combined eight points.
It’s been the thinnest of margins for Dan Hurley and his squad as they look to add to the program’s trophy case. What went wrong on Friday night?
Foul trouble left depth thin
On the nine-man rotation, just Donovan Clingan, Andre Jackson, Alex Karaban, and Adama Sanogo are 6-foot-6 or taller. Jordan Hawkins and Tristen Newton are each 6-foot-5 but aren’t the type of players that Dan Hurley would want at the four-spot for an extended period of time, as he’s been mostly unwilling to play Clingan and Sanogo alongside each other this year.
Unfortunately, for a five-minute stretch at the end of the first half, Hurley played four guards around Sanogo. Jackson exited after getting whistled for his second foul with 8:31 left, while Karaban picked up his second exactly three minutes later. Hurley trusted the redshirt freshman to play in the final possession of the first half and it paid off, as the defense lost him in the right corner for a 3-pointer.
This turned up again in the second half. Karaban kept his defense legal, but Jackson played just 15 minutes all game and fouled out with 1:53 left after scoring just two points and grabbing a single rebound.
Late offensive troubles
This has been a theme throughout the year. Joey Calcaterra knocked down a 3-pointer to re-tie the game at 60-60 with 9:26 left. From that point on, the Huskies were 3-13 from the field, including five straight misses.
The offense had similar issues on Thursday against Providence, with a 5-14 shooting performance and 15 points over the final 12 minutes, while the same occurred in multiple games across the regular season.
At least in Friday’s case, Calcaterra and Jordan Hawkins each had some good looks from outside in an effort to regain the lead and Marquette was just 3-10 from the field in the same span but had played better earlier in the second half.
Poor shooting performances will happen every so often and it isn’t necessarily indicative of anything more than that, but the overall trend of stagnating offense when the game is tight is something to watch, particularly when the team’s next loss will end the season.
Marquette jumped them to start the second half
The Huskies and Golden Eagles each hit 14 field goals, five 3-pointers, and five free throws in the first 20 minutes, with no team garnering an advantage of more than five. They headed into the locker room deadlocked at 38-38.
Tyler Kolek knocked down a deep shot to begin the second half, sparking a 6-6 start for Marquette in the second half. In just 5:15 of game time, a tie game with almost no separation became a double-digit advantage for the top-seeded Golden Eagles.
While its mark improved, Shaka Smart’s offense is ranked No. 6 in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom, and Hurley said they “jumped” the Huskies to begin the second half. UConn fought admirably to erase the deficit, particularly with Hawkins’ struggling, but that was too much to overcome.
Free throw shooting
While this isn’t a worrying trend (yet), it was a weak night at the line. The Huskies were 9-15 (60%) from the charity stripe against a percentage of 75.4 percent on the season. An 11-15 performance from the line would have been more in line with the team’s season averages and also would have been enough to tie the game, in a vacuum.
The game isn’t played in a vacuum, however, and nobody knows how the game would have turned out if the Huskies had done better. What could be more concerning is the rate at which UConn gets to the line.
The Huskies are a touch below the average in free throw rate, despite being in the top 50 in free throw percentage. UConn is at its best when it’s forcing the issue offensively and driving the lane or getting it inside to a strong Sanogo or a tall Clingan, where kick-outs to shooters or inside buckets are available, if not chances at the free throw line. The team didn’t have any fastbreak points on Friday and played almost entirely in the half-court.
Some UConn fans’ attitudes
While there are things that went wrong for UConn, it’s still very much a good team that’s deserving of a top-four seed in the NCAA Tournament and the Huskies played well Friday night. As written in The Fast Break, “With 25 bench points and a +10 rebounding advantage, while shooting 44% from the field with nine turnovers, and Sanogo playing well, UConn’s overall performance wasn’t bad.”
The offense in the second half was outstanding and it takes a lot of mental toughness to come back from 10 points down with two stars struggling. Marquette is an exceptional team that also has the potential to make a deep run. It was a classic that came down to the final possession and one great team was just a bit better than the other.