The refrain from Kevin Ollie and his players after Thursday’s 80-73 loss to SMU was the same one we’ve heard all season long.
“When you get down by 20, or you get down by 15, everything’s got to be perfect and unfortunately, today wasn’t perfect and we couldn’t get over the hump,” Ollie said.
“The biggest thing was just our energy in the first half,” UConn guard Antwoine Anderson said. “We didn’t play (with energy), and we came out slow, and it’s just like Coach Kevin says, it’s just hard to come back from 20 points and that’s just pretty much it.”
The Huskies finished a disastrous 2017-18 season at 14-18 with a first-round exit in the American Athletic Conference Tournament, and it’s because they started slow before waiting too long to inevitably lurch to life. It cost them against Memphis, Cincinnati and a number of other opponents this year, and it sunk them one last time on Thursday, despite facing off against an SMU team without its two best players (Shake Milton, Jarrey Foster) due to injuries.
“This game started off kind of like our whole season a little bit - getting down and then playing from behind,” Ollie said.
The details this time: UConn trailed 9-2 after three minutes, and 25-13 after 13 minutes. When it looked like an Anderson layup with 3:41 left in the first half had put them in position to make a run going into the break, SMU responded with a 9-2 jolt to take a 19-point lead into the locker room.
To the Huskies’ credit, they came out hungry and ripped off a 12-2 run spurred by impressive fast-break offense, but due to the hole they had already dug, that only cut the Mustangs’ lead to nine points. Tim Jankovich’s squad showed resolve and used three consecutive 3-pointers to go up by a game-high 21 points with 11:42 left. That was enough for them to ride to the finish line, simply by making a few free throws and grabbing rebounds when they were available.
“But when we went on runs, we’re a pretty good team,” Ollie said. “When we share the basketball, when we get defensive stops, we rebound, we get amazing shots, and that’s what – an example is we shot 54, 55 percent in the second half, but there has to be a sense of urgency from the first half.”
Christian Vital, who is always brutally honest about the performance of the team, has been asked many times this season about the Huskies’ slow starts. He answered that inquiry one last time Thursday.
“I’ll keep saying it, it was just on us as players,” Vital said. “We just couldn’t get it done.”
Ollie: I expect to be back
The most important question UConn will be forced to answer this offseason is whether Ollie will return as head coach after finishing below .500 for the second consecutive season. He led the team to a national championship in 2014, but the program has plummeted since then, with just one NCAA appearance in the last four years and mediocre finishes in the AAC standings.
Asked if he expects to be coaching UConn next year, Ollie was brief and blunt.
Not that we expected anything else, but with no games left to play, the clock is officially ticking. UConn must decide if they can stomach paying his $10 million buyout, in addition to a host of other factors when deciding their plans for next season. Athletic director David Benedict declined to comment on the program’s future after the game.
Star guard Jalen Adams was unequivocally supportive of his coach, sitting at his locker after a rough performance in Thursday’s loss.
“I definitely stand for him. I think he’s a great coach, he knows what he’s doing,” Adams said. “I definitely think he deserves his job and should be back here coaching at UConn. He loves UConn and would do anything for UConn. So, I think any time you get a guy like that, there’s nothing better than that. I don’t care what the critics say, what the wins and losses say; obviously that matters, but it’s a process. It’s not just going to happen overnight.”