HARTFORD -- The UConn men’s basketball team lost their third American Athletic Conference opener in four years Wednesday as Houston routed the undermanned Huskies 62-46 at the XL Center in Hartford. With lead guard Jalen Adams (concussion) sitting out, UConn had just seven scholarship players, and their offensive production tanked as a result.
“The first half was a bad shooting half,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said after the game, adding: “That was the first game where I just really thought we just didn’t have the enthusiasm on the defensive end.”
With just two healthy guards available, the Huskies came out in a zone defense and hung with the Cougars for just a couple of minutes before things got out of hand. They were initially able to slow down Houston’s offense, which entered Wednesday ranked third in the American, averaging 80.5 points per game.
However, it became immediately clear that removing Adams from an already-depleted UConn roster had sapped the Huskies of most of their offensive juice. Houston went on a 9-0 run to grab a 16-5 lead midway through the first half, and broke the game open with a 15-0 run to build a 33-11 advantage late in the half.
UConn, quarterbacked at the guard position by senior Rodney Purvis and freshman Christian Vital, struggled immensely when faced with the defensive effort of the Cougars, who threw plenty of double teams and heavily pressured entry passes.
“They wasn’t going to let us play in the post,” Ollie said of Houston’s defensive strategy. “I think they kinda seen where we were producing points at, and they took that away, and they put it back on the onus of Rodney [Purvis] and our guards to make plays, and we just couldn’t do enough of it today.”
In the first half, UConn scored just 12 points, their second-fewest total for points in a half since 1980. The numbers weren’t pretty: 3-for-21 shooting from the field, with nine turnovers. Houston led 36-12 at the halftime break.
“The shots just didn’t fall in the first half,” Vital said. “Sometimes that’s how it goes, honestly.”
The Huskies’ first half failures essentially decided the outcome of the game, as UConn failed to significantly change their fortunes in the second half. They played with energy and effort considering the circumstances, but failed to sustain runs long enough to truly get themselves back into the game.
Against many of the Cougars’ walk-ons in the final minutes of the game, UConn trimmed the lead as low as 13 points before eventually falling 62-46.
Vital led the Huskies with 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting, while Purvis and Vance Jackson finished with 12 points each.
On the other side of the ball, Houston won handily despite playing below their usual offensive standards. Junior guard Rob Gray, who entered Wednesday as the American’s second-leading scorer, led the Cougars’ efforts with 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
UConn was in a difficult position before Adams’ injury, with three players sitting out for the season with varying injuries, but the loss of their stellar offensive guard appeared to be the straw that broke the camel’s back Wednesday. His status is crucial as the Huskies look to save their season in conference play. The Huskies are back in action on New Year’s Eve in Oklahoma against Tulsa.
“We’ll see how [Adams] is able to practice tomorrow, and then we’ll make an evaluation and go from there,” Ollie said.
There were positives to take from the loss, as dire as the first half performance was. Vital (4-for-8) and Jackson (3-for-6) had encouraging performances from long range. UConn won another rebounding battle, 30-25, with the continued emergence of Kentan Facey (seven boards) leading the charge as a force down low. The discombobulated offense racked up 12 assists on just 16 baskets, good for a 75 percent team assist rate.
They can go only up from here, especially considering Adams will return. Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said the same after the game, highlighting how difficult it is to win without your point guard. But Wednesday was ugly.
As always, the Huskies’ players and their coach refused to make excuses. They remained singularly focused on winning games.
“We gon’ continue to have faith, we gon’ continue to have fight, and we just got to play harder,” Ollie said. “We gon’ turn this around, and we gon’ play hard.”