A game riddled with fouls and brimming with rivalry ended in a heartbreaking fashion for the UConn men’s basketball team, their tournament run coming to an end with a 71-61 loss to Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference semifinals.
UConn was playing with a clear disadvantage, both talent-wise and depth-wise, but three Huskies finished with double-digit points. Jalen Adams led the way with 20 points, while Christian Vital was not far behind with 18 points and nine rebounds. Senior Rodney Purvis finished with 10 points in his final game as a Husky.
“It was a tough game played. We don’t have a bench anyway. We’re short-handed, but just trying to shuffle guys in and out [was difficult]. I thought our guys fought through adversity, just some unfortunate calls, just didn’t go our way,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “It’s the game—that happens sometimes. You’ve got to make adjustments. We didn’t make those adjustments today, I guess.”
It was a physical game from the very beginning, and the result was a lot of UConn fouls in a short amount of time. Not even 10 minutes had gone by before Kentan Facey had three fouls and Adams had two. Luckily for Cincinnati, they were able to get the calls as well as hitting long shots—four of their first eight made shots were 3-pointers.
The two teams traded scoring for the first 10 minutes, but as soon as the fouls started racking up, UConn began to falter. They got the score within two after an Adams jumper, but almost immediately after, he was tagged for his third foul on the defensive end, forcing Ollie to bench him.
The Huskies were suddenly thrown into disarray, taking long threes in a desperate attempt to make the score closer. After Adams was sidelined, the Bearcats went on a 20-10 run, missing only one out of five field goals during that span and making five free throws.
“It was tough. I see my guys out there fighting, trying to hold on and get the lead, get back in the game, and I put myself—I put the team in a difficult position by getting those early fouls,” Adams said.
UConn’s only baske made, on the other hand, was a tip-in from Juwan Durham; the Huskies went 1-for-7 in the last eight minutes of the game. The other eight points came solely from free throws. Once halftime hit, the Huskies found themselves down 41-29.
UConn may have completely sunk if it wasn’t for Durham’s rebounding efforts. In the 10 minutes he played in the first half, he grabbed four rebounds, three of them on the offensive end.
The biggest dictator of pace was not either team’s doing; rather, it was the referees who contributed to the staccato play by calling 28 total fouls in the first half one. Each team was tagged with 14.
“You’re talking to a guy that was part of a horrible incident a long time ago where stuff was not called and stuff escalated. And it was a terrible, terrible scene for two great universities. That stuff needs to be called. Any foul needs to be called. If it’s a foul, it’s a foul. You always have a choice, then don’t foul,” Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin said in the postgame press conference, referring to a massive brawl that ensued in 2011 between Cincinnati and Xavier.
Ollie thought differently.
“I don’t know if a lot of people was watching the game, it was all just free throws. That’s not how basketball is supposed to be played,” he said.
Not even 20 seconds into the second half, Vital was called for his second foul of the day. After two Jacob Evans free throws widened Cincinnati’s lead to 14, UConn exploded for an 11-2 run at the hands of Facey and Vital, both of whom scored all their points in the paint, to send the Bearcats into a timeout with a 45-40 lead.
Following the timeout, the Bearcats went 1-for-9 from the floor, and Purvis hit two 3-pointers in a row to bring the Huskies within two. With shots not falling, Cincinnati began to score from the only place they could—the free throw line. The Bearcats amassed nine straight points from the charity stripe.
As if by design, Adams began to kick into overdrive. He scored 13 points in a row for UConn beginning at the nine-minute mark. He fended off free throws and back-to-back threes from Troy Caupain and Evans to bring what was a 10-point Bearcat lead down to a five-point one with 4:04 to go.
Almost immediately, Facey was called for his fifth and final foul, and his senior season came to an end in the most deflating way possible. It was as if that call officially sucked the life out of UConn’s comeback hopes; after Clark hit both his free throws, the Huskies found themselves in a seven-point hole with 3:27 to go.
Though Cincinnati emerged victorious by a score of 81-71, it didn’t stop UConn from trying. Jackson, Adams and Vital all registered points in the final minute.
Gary Clark, who averages 10.4 points per game and shoots at a clip of 64 percent from the free throw line, was the runaway hero for Cincinnati tonight with a 25-point performance, bolstered by an unfathomable 15-for-16 day at the charity stripe. Evans was close behind him with 21 points.
“I just think we needed to dig down a little bit more, get the key stops that we really needed to get once we was in reach. Any time we got the game down to, like, four or five, I just think we would make a small mistake on the defensive end and give them another shot at it, or we would foul and they went to the free throw line,” Purvis said.
As a team, the Bearcats went 38-for-46 at the line. They took almost as many free throws as field goals, as they went 18-for-47 from the floor.
UConn went 20-for-25 from the line, bringing the grand foul total to 56. In a game decided by just 10 points, foul calls were the clear difference. The last time UConn committed more than 30 fouls was in the six-overtime thriller against Syracuse in 2009.
Though the season ended abruptly for Ollie and the Huskies, he knows that the seniors’ time at UConn is far more than just playing good basketball.
“Those seniors, they didn’t miss a practice. Just the energy they brought, the leadership they brought is something I will always cherish,” Ollie said. “Everybody can say we had the first losing season in 30 years, I don’t know what it is, but at the end of the day, I know those guys got some brothers for a lifetime, and that’s the thing I’m proudest of from UConn.”