UConn fans could be forgiven if the last three games started to blend together from an aesthetics standpoint. Against Villanova, South Florida and UCF, UConn hung around, leading at times in the first half, then the wheels completely fell off in the second.
The Huskies were outscored a combined 134-86 in the second periods of those three games, making only eight field goals apiece in the second half against UCF and South Florida.
But something changed between the first two and the latest, in head coach Dan Hurley’s eyes, marking a difference in terms of the attitude he saw from the team.
“We had a lot of trouble looking at each other in the eyes the last couple of days [after USF] because of the disappointment in each other, but at least in that locker room we can look at each other in the eyes and not be ashamed about how we represented the university and the program,” Hurley said.
In the days after the USF game the Huskies showed renewed effort in practice and outside of it, Hurley said, and they came out on Saturday afternoon with a renewed vigor.
Despite his dismal shooting performance on Saturday, guard Jalen Adams was the driving force behind the Huskies’ change in attitude in the weeks leading up in a stark contrast to his usual joking demeanor.
“He was the first guy out on the day for shooting, it was a stone-faced look. There were no smiles, there were no guitars after a 3, he was playing the way a serious basketball player needs to be,” Hurley said.
If you look on the stat sheet, the team’s effort was somewhat apparent: UConn out-rebounded UCF 37-23, put up 59 shots to UCF’s 35, but a win just wasn’t in the cards against what Hurley called the second-best team they’ve played all year.
“I think we were full of fight tonight, especially with how we approached the game today, how everyone prepared, the way we stayed together as a team, I was proud of the guys today,” guard Alterique GIlbert said.
By the time the second half rolled around, a few of the bad habits that dragged down UConn teams of the past few years reared up. Turnovers (12 of them) and driving gaps irresponsibly were the two main problems that Hurley mentioned, but the same self-doubt from 2017-2018 seemed to hang around throughout the game, an extra opponent that the coach will need to combat this season.
“I’ve been through these first few years before at a couple of other places where we’ve come off back-to-back years [of losing] and some other places more that, and there’s a ‘here we go again’ mindset that subconsciously creeps in,” Hurley said. “It’s a hurdle that you have to get over as a team by going to work every day with this team, to continue to build confidence and develop great habits.”
Forward Eric Cobb says that the steps towards overcoming this hurdle are already in place
“We got a couple people just stepping up and being more vocal and it’s rubbing off on the team. We just have to build from this point on and never look back.”
UCF guard duo provides a blueprint
UCF is home to one of the most dynamic guard duos in the nation this year, and they put on a show in the XL Center on Saturday afternoon. Preseason player of the year BJ Taylor took a backseat to Michigan transfer Aubrey Dawkins, who had 23 points on 9-13 shooting, 3-4 from three, another road trip in his return after missing two seasons: one after transferring from Michigan, and last year due to injury.
“Aubrey Dawkins put on a show out there and made some really tough shots,” Hurley gushed, and it’s easy to see why, the way Dawkins took over the game.
UCF’s backcourt duo is averaging a combined 33 points per game so far this season, providing a blueprint for UConn to follow in terms of their own strength.
“We’re not close to where they are right now. Those guys, they’re men, well-schooled and they have great habits, and they’re led by guys who are locked in,” Hurley said after the game.
Tacko Fall’s last trip to Connecticut
Saturday marked Tacko Fall’s last appearance visiting UConn, having become somewhat of a cult phenomenon among Husky fans in his four visits to Storrs and Hartford. The mountain of a man only had one field goal attempt on the day, but his mere presence on the court had a clear effect on the Huskies’ offense as usual.
Fall rose about four feet over Gilbert to smack away his layup attempt, and added at least two more deflections as UConn players tried to weave in and out of his tree trunk legs.
“They got a giant in the middle of the paint, so that was tough for us, it was a challenge,” Gilbert said.
Fall is having the his best season in his last year at UCF, with three blocks and 11 points per game on a nearly .800 field goal percentage, all career-highs.
Luke Swanson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.