HARTFORD— They were down, but not out—until the final five minutes happened.
In some respects, the UConn men’s basketball team played No. 8 Wichita State well in their first conference matchup on the season—they deserve some credit for shooting 45 percent in the second half and holding the Shockers to 42 percent shooting from the field overall, as well as forcing more turnovers (14) than they committed (11).
But when it came down to the final minutes, the Huskies did something they were guilty of just over a week ago: they let the game slip away late.
“I think sometimes we get caught up in the moment,” coach Kevin Ollie said. “This is a team that, they live off your mistakes. We can’t make those mistakes. We can’t come down and try to play hero basketball.”
There were a lot of moments in UConn’s 72-62 loss to get caught up in. After an embarrassing effort against Auburn, it felt like the Huskies were primed to get blown out. But a sold-out crowd at the XL Center both fueled UConn and rattled Wichita State. The Shockers, who normally shoot 76 percent from the free throw line, shot just 33 percent (4-for-12). Layups weren’t falling, they failed to get the shots in the middle of the lane they wanted, they got out-rebounded in the first half 22-20 and committed seven turnovers, six of them from steals.
UConn’s offense wasn’t that much better, though both Jalen Adams and Terry Larrier finished with 18 points, but their aggressive defensive effort was able to keep them in it.
For 35 minutes.
UConn trailed Arizona by five points in their Dec. 21 game before falling apart in the final five minutes, giving up a few 3-pointers en route to a 13-point loss. Today, UConn was able to tie the game twice and even take the lead for a brief moment before promptly giving the lead right back.
The first instance came four minutes into the second half, where a steal and six quick points turned UConn’s four-point halftime deficit into a 35-35 tie. Conner Frankamp immediately hit a 3-pointer on the other end.
UConn came back, and a Terry Larrier jumper put the Huskies back within one. Then they let up a 3-pointer to Austin Reaves. Mamadou Diarra got one to fall after a Landry Shamet free throw, and an Adams jumper and a Christian Vital layup gave UConn their last lead of the night. The Shockers responded with seven straight points.
After two Larrier jumpers, Vital then turned the electricity back on at XL, grabbing a rebound after a missed tip-in and taking it himself to the other side for a chance at the three-point play.
But he missed the foul shot, and Wichita’s veteran team scored seven straight points and took the lead back permanently with the help of timely 3-point shooting. The Shockers finished with 12 3-pointers; the Huskies finished with three.
“No matter how many times you score, it’s still going to be two-to-one, two-to-one unless we’re getting and-1’s, which we didn’t have many of,” Vital said of the Huskies’ inability to make 3-pointers. “We didn’t hit many threes today, so they’re going to have that lead if they’re winning in that regard, especially if they’re (getting offensive rebounds) off their misses and finishing the play.”
UConn didn’t put up much of a fight after giving up the lead. Each time the Huskies brought it back within a possession, the Shockers responded with an immediate basket.
The Huskies, who played zone defense all game, switched to man-to-man in the final minutes, allowing Shaquille Morris, who only had one point on a free throw, to score eight points down the stretch, including a monster dunk that all but put the nail in UConn’s coffin.
“When they switched to man-to-man, I don’t know what the lead was… we knew that we could get them on that,” Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall said of going to Morris in the final minutes. “We hadn’t run (that particular offense) that whole game, and they hadn’t seen that particular set, and we usually execute that very well.”