HARTFORD – It seems like the story of the UConn Huskies men’s basketball season has been one injury after another. That was the case again on Saturday afternoon as UConn’s star point guard Jalen Adams went down late in the first half against the SMU Mustangs. Each run the Huskies made at a comeback was stifled in the losing effort, as they fell to SMU 69-61 at the XL Center.
UConn (14-14, 9-7 the American) fell behind early, as three-pointers from Sterling Brown and Semi Ojeleye put SMU up 9-4 three minutes into the game. The Huskies continued to struggle on both sides of the ball and allowed the Mustangs (25-4, 15-1 the American) to go on a 13-0 run before head coach Kevin Ollie called a timeout with 15:21 remaining in the half to stop the bleeding.
Coming out of the timeout, freshman Vance Jackson made a nice move cutting into the lane and spinning away from his defender for a mid-range jumper. Just about a minute later, Shake Milton would hit back-to-back threes, extending the SMU lead to 20-8. Just as the game started to slip away for the Huskies, an over-the-back foul on Brown along with a technical foul for arguing gave UConn some life. Jalen Adams hit both of the ensuing free throws before the 12-minute TV timeout.
The game started to get particularly chippy in the minutes that followed the timeout, to the point that the refs needed to give some stern talks to players on both teams. After things started to settle down, Milton started to heat up, knocking down several more threes to put the Mustangs up 31-15 with about eight minutes remaining in the half.
“On any given night, and this is what has happened all year long, you never know where fire may break out,” SMU head coach Tim Jankovich said. “We have had the fire break out of all different places. Tonight, obviously Shake [Milton] was amazing carrying us in the first half.”
UConn and SMU would go back and forth for the remainder of the first half with the Mustangs heading into the locker up 41-30. However, Adams took a hard fall with around three minutes left, hobbling off the court with a bad ankle sprain. The playmaker came out on the floor for second half warmups, but would not return for the remainder of the game, leaving Rodney Purvis and Vital to split point guard duties.
“Losing Adams for them was a big blow, without a question,” Jankovich said. “But [Ollie] has done a great job after all the early injuries, this team has been playing awfully well. It’s a totally different team than the one we played five weeks ago.”
Adams will undergo further tests to make sure he will be good to go in the coming weeks.
Jackson would open up the scoring in the second frame with a nice pump fake and drive into the paint for a floater, but Ojeleye, SMU’s leading scorer, who sat out much of the first due to foul trouble, responded with a huge slam to regain the double-digit lead. Purvis hit his first three of the game one minute later to bring the Huskies within ten points ahead of the 16-minute TV timeout.
With about 13 minutes remaining in the game, Vital nailed a huge three just seconds into the shot clock to bring the Huskies within eight points. Kentan Facey followed that up with a nifty turnaround jumper to put UConn right back in the game and get the XL Center crowd roaring once more.
An Amida Brimah block on defense almost brought the game within five on the other end, but a lazy pass by Purvis allowed for Ojeleye to get a fast break layup by fighting through contact. Just when it looked like the Mustangs were going to settle down and continue on the way to a win, UConn fought right back led by the freshman Vital.
“Another guy that we fed off today was CV,” Ollie said. “He came in there, he gets on my last nerve sometimes when he takes those ill-advised shots, but if you want somebody to compete, I’ll be in the trenches with him any day. Any day. I appreciate his effort.”
With just under 10 minutes remaining, the Huskies’ offense caught fire as back-to-back threes from Vital and Purvis forced an SMU timeout and an eruption from the crowd. As it turned out, the timeout was just was the Mustangs needed. They got three easy buckets immediately afterwards and started defending the perimeter much tighter, bringing the UConn offense to a staggering halt.
“The message right then [during the timeout] was… that these guys have had a great run, they’re extremely warm. But I don’t believe those shots will continue to go in as the pressure builds late in the game,” Jankovich said. “I felt like our defense was good enough, they were just very impressive.”
Jankovich’s message proved true in the closing minutes of the game. Ultimately, numerous ill-advised shots from Purvis, who finished 4-18 from the field (2-12 from three), along with improved offense from SMU made the deficit too difficult to overcome for the Huskies.
Despite being swept by the Mustangs, Jackson was not short of confidence should the two teams meet again in the conference tournament in two weeks.
“I guarantee we’ll beat [SMU],” Jackson said. “It’s hard to beat a team three times anywhere. It’s a guaranteed win.”
Next up, UConn will travel to East Carolina Wednesday to take on the Pirates in a critical game if they want a bye in the conference tournament.