In a crucial game with third place in the conference on the line, the UConn men’s basketball team failed to deliver, squandering a 10-point halftime lead and falling to Houston 75-70 on the road.
After ending the first half on a 9-2 run, the Huskies (14-13, 9-6 the American) quickly spiraled into defensive disarray once the second half started, scoring only 23 points and allowing Houston’s Damyean Dotson to finish with 25 points overall.
The gas finally ran out of UConn’s tank. Strong transition play and a diverse defensive pattern suddenly turned into failure to get back and a surprising lack of offensive dynamism. As if the Huskies weren’t feeling enough pressure on the road, head coach Kevin Ollie was called for a technical foul after chewing the refs apart over a foul call in the final minute, all but crushing what was left of UConn’s spirits.
Although Jalen Adams finished with a team-best 18 points and Vance Jackson delivered with 16, the efforts of two players were not enough to overcome the American’s top scorer, Rob Gray, who scored 14 points in the second half, and Dotson. Rodney Purvis, who has averaged 20 points per game over his last three games, fouled out in the final minutes with 11 points.
The Huskies started out strong, never trailing at any point in the first half. They quickly distanced themselves from the Cougars (19-8, 10-5 the American) with an 8-0 run three minutes in. Houston responded with a run of their own to get the score within a possession, but UConn would pull away and bring the score to 25-15, charging to the basket and drawing fouls from key players like Gray.
Houston, however, was not that easy to put away. The Cougars responded with an 8-0 run, and UConn suddenly had to face a 25-23 game with five minutes to go. Led by the palpable energy of Christian Vital who, despite contributing only two first-half points, kept the flow of the game moving, the Huskies ran away from the Cougars, scoring nine straight points to bolster their lead. Adams finally came alive, scoring seven of the nine points over the run.
It was a game of defense. With a score of 39-29 at the half, both teams held each other at bay in spite of some lopsided scoring runs. Gray did not score a point until he hit two free throws with 4:19 to go in the first half, and while Dotson was the only Cougar to score over six points, with 11, he finished the half with two fouls.
Despite starting slow, Adams led UConn at the half with 11 points, Jackson not far behind with eight. Steven Enoch was a perfect 3-for-3 off the bench and played some strong defense, helping to hold Houston to 31.6 percent shooting from the field.
The Huskies began the second half in abysmal fashion, missing their first six shots from the field and allowing Houston to easily glide back into the game. After eight minutes, the Cougars outscored UConn 18-4 and took their first lead of the night, going up 47-43 with the help of seven points from Dotson.
After an Amida Brimah tip-in got UConn back within a basket, Houston exploded for a 7-0 run, holding the Huskies scoreless for four minutes before Kentan Facey broke the ice with a dunk. UConn, however, was clearly fatigued, failing to get back on defense and allowing Houston to respond with mildly-contested shots to maintain their nine-point lead with seven minutes to play.
UConn hung around, even getting back within four after a Jackson 3-pointer with 1:24 to go, but his effort was lost in the Huskies’ inability to get a defensive stop, coupled with Ollie’s poorly-timed technical foul.
Up next, the Huskies will face another challenge as they square up against No. 17 SMU at the XL Center on Saturday, Feb. 25. Tipoff is scheduled for 12 p.m.