Men’s Basketball: Sloppy first half dooms comeback effort in MSG loss to Syracuse

Head coach Kevin Ollie discusses strategy with his players during the Huskies 72-63 loss to longtime rival Syracuse on Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2017 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (Olivia Stenger/The Daily Campus)

NEW YORK – The UConn men’s basketball team is no stranger to digging holes for themselves. The Huskies trailed Columbia by as many as 15 points last Wednesday and trailed Monmouth by as many as nine on Saturday before coming back both times to avoid disastrous losses.

Well, the spotlight grew much bigger Tuesday night as the Huskies faced longtime rival Syracuse at Madison Square Garden, and the hole they dug in the Garden (17 points) was simply too deep to climb out of.

Self-inflicted mistakes doomed UConn to a 72-63 loss in the second half of a doubleheader at the 2017 Jimmy V Classic.

“Once again, we just dug ourselves too big of a hole,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said after the game.

The Huskies doomed themselves by repeatedly turning the ball over in the first half, and then fouling on the defensive side of the ball.

Faced with Syracuse’s vaunted zone defense, UConn’s stagnant offense looked like a student who hadn’t studied for the final exam. The Orange disrupted passing lanes and had great success helping off shooters to wrench the ball away from driving ball handlers.

“You have to make sure you make good strong passes, you can’t step out of bounds,” Ollie said. “I mean, it was like we had never seen a zone before.”

UConn turned the ball over 13 times in the first half.

“We knew they were going to be in that zone, and obviously, they have good length,” UConn guard Christian Vital said. “We just got to make better passes.”

Compounding that issue, the Huskies committed 11 personal fouls in the first half, leading to 18 Syracuse free throw attempts. That sent Eric Cobb and Mamadou Diarra, UConn’s only hope to possibly contain the Orange on the boards, into early foul trouble. Both players eventually fouled out after 17 minutes on the court.

I mean, it was like we had never seen a zone before.
— Head Coach Kevin Ollie

“We knew they were a great offensive rebounding team,” Ollie said.

The Orange pulled down 14 offensive rebounds, which contributed gradually towards building a 17-point lead with 13:19 remaining in the game.

That’s when UConn made their move, but due to their first half follies, they had very little room for error. A 13-5 spurt cut the lead to nine points and awoke a largely dormant UConn crowd, but a couple of missed shots and silly fouls put an end to that as Syracuse secured the win.

“It was right there (for us to come back),” Ollie said, before briefly recounting the sequence of events with about nine minutes left that cost UConn their chance to come back. “We got to take those opportunities and run with it. But then, it comes down to getting stops. No matter what we did, we didn’t do that consistently.”

Still waiting on Gilbert news

Freshman guard Alterique Gilbert, who has missed the past three games rehabbing a shoulder injury, is still contemplating all his options, including surgery. Ollie said after the game that there is “no answer yet” on when Gilbert may return.

“We’re just waiting for Al,” Ollie said. “The ultimate decision maker is going to be Alterique.”

The Huskies sorely missed Gilbert’s ability to threaten the defense Tuesday night with Jalen Adams, Antwoine Anderson and Vital forced to play 40, 38 and 37 minutes, respectively. While Adams (22 points) and Vital (17 points, five rebounds, four assists) delivered, Anderson struggled, committing four turnovers while scoring just three points.


Tyler Keating is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at tyler.keating@uconn.edu. He tweets @tylerskeating.