HARTFORD – 56 foul calls and 71 free throw attempts. Those are the two numbers that defined Saturday evening’s game between UConn and Cincinnati at the XL Center, which tipped off at 5:34 p.m. and ended at about 8:05 p.m.
No, the officials did not decide Saturday’s game, but they certainly dictated it. By the end of the night, Cincinnati had taken 46 free throws, 47 field goals and won 81-71. Not to be forgotten or trivialized, UConn took 25 free throws of their own. Two players had fouled out – UConn seniors Rodney Purvis and Kentan Facey, did so in the final games of their collegiate careers – and eight more finished with four personal fouls.
“I guess the refs did the best job that they possibly can, you know? You see 46 free throws, 31 free throws in one half. So, I don’t know if a lot of people was watching that game, I mean because it’s just all free throws. So, that’s not how basketball is supposed to be played,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said.
Neither Ollie nor his players made excuses after the game, but it’s impossible to ignore the effect the officials had on the pace of Saturday’s game. Seemingly every possession, the action came to a grinding halt at the sound of a whistle. The pro-UConn crowd at the XL Center voiced their disdain early, often and vociferously.
Whistle. Free throws. Whistle. Whistle. Free throws.
Some of the game’s most impactful players were forced to sit and watch due to foul trouble. Cincinnati’s Kyle Washington, who averages 13.5 points per game, played just 15 minutes. Facey and Jalen Adams played just seven and nine minutes in the first half, respectively, before Facey eventually fouled out at 13 minutes.
“I think we did the best that we could as far as the foul trouble and the different things of that nature. Of course, I can sit up here and say I felt that we played good defense, and somehow we fouled, so, I don’t know. But the game is over with, you know? Like I said, the main thing we wanted to do was just try to get stops and timely stops,” Purvis said.
“I put the team in a difficult position by getting those early fouls. So I’ve just got to learn from that and stay solid and disciplined,” Adams said.
The Bearcats won Saturday, advancing to the final of the American Athletic Conference Championship, while UConn’s unfortunate season came to an end.
History is written by the victors, or at least the victors prefer it that way. When Cincinnati guard Troy Caupain was asked by UConn beat writer Neill Ostrout after the game if he had ever played in a game with so many whistles, his head coach Mick Cronin jumped in.
“Are you trying to insinuate that UConn got cheated? Okay. I’m just checking,” Cronin said.
Cronin and Ostrout later made up, but the contentious nature of Cronin’s comment at the time was undeniable. When the officials get involved in a game, in any sport, qualifications must be made. Their impact is derided by the victors, while the losers are considered sore if they continue to talk about it.
UConn fans will want to continue to talk about Saturday’s game for a while, and they made their voice heard by showering the officials with boos when they left the court with security in tow. The Bearcats took 21 more free throws, and the 15-for-16 showing from the line by forward Gary Clark, who entered Saturday’s game shooting 65 percent from the line, made a massive difference in the outcome.
The officials were not the reason UConn lost. UConn lost because Cincinnati is a superior team, and Cincinnati played a better game Saturday. The two best teams in the American Athletic Conference will play Sunday in the final.
But they made a difference.
“I thought our guys fought through adversity, just some unfortunate calls, just didn’t go our way. So, I mean, it’s the game – that happens sometimes. You’ve got to make adjustments. We didn’t make the adjustments today, I guess,” Ollie said.