ORLANDO— It’s over.
The UConn men’s basketball team (14-18) lost 80-73 in the first round of the American Athletic Conference tournament on Thursday. They were beaten by SMU (17-15), losers of eight of its last nine regular season games, without their leading scorer or best rebounder. UConn never once had a lead, but by the end of the game, it cut down its 19-point halftime deficit to as little as four points.
“Once again, our guys didn’t give in. They didn’t stop fighting. We got back in the game,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “But when you get down by 20 or you get down by 15, everything’s got to be perfect. And unfortunately, today wasn’t perfect. We couldn’t get over the hump.”
Christian Vital led the Huskies in scoring with 24 points and Antwoine Anderson had perhaps his best game in a Husky uniform, scoring 19 with two assists and two steals. Jalen Adams, who had been on fire in his last four games, scored just six points on 3-for-11 shooting in all 40 minutes of play. He hurt his thumb in the Houston game on Sunday.
“At the end of the day he was making the right plays,” Ollie said. “He was making passes, he was getting, trying to get everybody involved, and I just appreciate him playing the right way and he's done that the whole year.”
UConn has had a problem allowing opposing players to record career highs. Today was no exception. Senior Akoy Agau, who averages 4.2 points per game, exploded for a career-high 21 points and grabbed nine boards. Ben Emelogu led the Mustang with 23 points and Jahmal McMurray rode a big first half en route to 19 points.
“This is kind of our last opportunity to try to make a push and do as well as we can and still try to make a push for March Madness,” Agau said. “[I] just kind of went out there and just kind of played hard and things happened as they did.”
After improved play over the last two games, the Huskies seemed to revert to their old ways—they forced a turnover on SMU’s very first possession but missed two layups and allowed the Mustangs to open up a 9-2 lead.
Vital and Adams each hit a shot to bring the Huskies back within two, but three straight SMU 3-pointers put UConn in a deep hole. The Mustangs would hit two more 3-pointers by the end of the half; UConn didn’t hit a single trey until 9:44 in the second half. They hit only five shots in the final six minutes and ended the first half shooting 11-for-29 (37.7 percent) from the field.
By the end of the half, it was 42-23. UConn was playing with little interest. Terry Larrier went 2-for-11 and no Husky scored more than five points. The defensive effort, which started out strong, took a big hit after the Mustangs sank open 3s.
“The biggest thing was just our energy in the first half,” Anderson said. “We didn't play with no energy and we came out slow.”
“With so much on the line, we knew that… our team knew that if we don’t win this tournament, the season’s over,” Adams added. “We just… we should have came out with more energy and played a lot harder from the start.”
If UConn was running a race, they outright tripped out of the starting blocks but found their stride halfway through. The Huskies opened the second half with a 12-2 run with the help of a few steals and clean play in transition. By 16:38, a 19-point deficit was trimmed down to nine.
But it wouldn't last. After a couple turnovers from both teams, the score was 49-39 SMU at the first media timeout. Mamadou Diarra was playing with energy on both ends—he had eight points, four rebounds (three offensive) and three fouls in 13 minutes thus far.
Ollie benched him in favor of Eric Cobb, who had not played in the past two games, and SMU went on an 11-0 run and forced four turnovers. Suddenly, the score was 60-39.
“You give up live turnovers, they've got great players on that end, so they're going to make you pay,” Ollie said. “So we can't turn the ball over. I mean, if you know the game, you seen the game. I mean, it's hard to win when you don't get a shot up on the rim.”
But UConn fought back. After a timeout, Vital hit a 3-pointer—UConn’s first of the game and the first of nine points Vital would score on his own in the next two and a half minutes. SMU got their lead back up to 19, but the Huskies kept chipping away as the shots finally started to fall. UConn scored 15 points in four minutes, capped off by an Anderson 3-pointer, to bring themselves within four with 41 seconds to go.
A comeback just wasn’t in the cards, though. Larrier and Adams both missed 3-pointers in the closing seconds and SMU hit eight free throws in the final minute, capping off an 18-for-23 day from the line, . The Huskies went only 13-for-19.
And so ended UConn’s second losing season in a row, even worse than the injury-stricken 2016-17 campaign. It was the first time UConn has lost in the opening round of the conference tournament—the first time not winning at least two games, for that matter.
So where does the team go from here? What’s Ollie’s future?
“We don't want to be 14-18. And that's unacceptable and we have to get better in every category, and I'm in the top to evaluate myself, how I can get these guys to play better, how can I get my coaching staff to execute better and we're all in this together,” Ollie said. “So it's going to be a long evaluation for myself, my coaching staff, my team. We got to get players, and we got to find out who is staying.”