Ah, Valentine’s Day. A beautiful day full of love, heart, romantics and, sometimes, heartbreak.
In what could have been a morale-boosting win for a team without their most dynamic guards, the UConn men’s basketball team instead suffered the worst Valentine’s Day has to offer, losing a hard-fought 71-63 game to No. 9 Houston at the XL Center after falling apart in the second half and at the free throw line.
“We lost it in the second half. We just weren’t ready for the way they were gonna bring it,” head coach Dan Hurley said. “Both ends of the court there, we weren’t sharp offensively and we just mishandled screening situations that we covered.”
Even though the singles’ section was empty, it was a packed house for the Huskies’ showdown with the only ranked team in The American. Houston is ranked No. 9 and their strength of schedule certainly a factor in that. But the Cougar bench outscored the UConn bench 42-9, highlighting both Houston’s depth and UConn’s injuries.
“That is a well-rounded, deep team,” Hurley said, “We made too many mistakes. Again, the free throw line, and just some defensive breakdowns there where we vacated the basket to give them some of those dunks.”
It wasn’t a box-busting night for any Husky in particular; rather, every player except Isaiah Whaley scored at least three points and contributed to the tough defensive effort. Christian Vital, the leading guard, finished with 15 points, five rebounds and four assists. Sidney Wilson finished with 12 points, Josh Carlton grabbed 10 rebounds and Tarin Smith dished out seven assists.
UConn trailed by just three at halftime, an unexpected twist after poor first-half performances in the last two games. But Houston opened the second half on a 7-0 run and quickly took a 10-point lead that only continued to grow as the clock ticked on. UConn’s strong first-half defense was marred by the Courgars’ ability from beyond the arc and ball movement around the floor. The Huskies couldn’t score, and they couldn’t get a stop.
“Let’s not get caught playing in the half court. Forget out plays—go make a play,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said when asked what he told his team at halftime. “We got caught up looking at me too much tonight. Don’t look at me—go make a play.”
Even without Alterique Gilbert or Jalen Adams, the Huskies were able to hang around with the Cougars. The game remained scoreless for the first two minutes until Houston got the scoring started with a dunk—one of five they would finish with in the half.
UConn, however, was not as eloquent to start; Josh Carlton missed his first four free throw attempts. He would finish 4-for-10 from the line, highlighting UConn’s ugly 14-for-25 performance from the charity stripe.
“Tough, tough night,” Carlton said. “Just gotta get back in the gym and work on my free throws.”
Both teams played hard defense, smothering each other down low and preventing much from happening in the paint—Carlton finished the half with just a bucket to his name. Houston recorded nine fouls in the first half, but UConn went 5-for-12 from the line.
Wilson got the crowd going in the first half by sinking a 3-pointer to get the Huskies on the board. Houston proceeded to sink three 3-pointers in a row and closed off their run beyond the arc with another dunk, bringing their lead to 13-7 with 13:16 to go.
After Houston’s Chris Harris, Jr. sunk a layup with 6:27 to go, it kicked off a brutal 0-for-13 stretch for both teams in the final minutes of the first half. UConn went 0-for-6 in that timespan before Smith rolled in a layup in transition four minutes later to bring the score within one. Vital hit a 3-pointer to tie the game, with 47 seconds to go, but Houston sunk one immediately on the next possession to go into halftime with a 32-29 lead.
“We just gotta get off to a better start in the second half,” Vital said. “That second half when we were down three and we let it get to 10, it just put us in a hole so we’re fighting our way back for the rest of the game.”
As Houston’s offense flourished, UConn’s struggled. The Huskies started off 2-for-10 from the floor and didn’t get much better after that. Even when they did score, the Cougars would respond in kind, making any 3-pointer UConn sunk ineffective.
Things got interesting in the home stretch, though, when Tyler Polley—who had only scored three points in the first half—started sinking some 3-pointers. Houston was still making shots, sure, but now UConn was starting to get into it. After Carlton hit both of his free throws, Polley hit his second trey of the night to cut the deficit down to 10, and Wilson hit one on the next possession to bring the Huskies within seven and the XL crowd to its feet.
But a crucial blown call suddenly shifted the tides of the game. With under two minutes to go, Houston chucked up a desperation 3 with one second left on the shot clock and missed the mark, allowing UConn to grab the rebound and get an easy bucket in transition. But the refs called a shot clock violation, sending Hurley into a frenzy and restarting the possession. UConn would not hit another shot from the floor until 53 seconds were left and the deficit was back up to double-digits.
“We are not cowards. We are not soft. We’re tough, we’re improving, we’re building a culture here of not giving in and playing through and competing and digging our heels in when things get hard and showing what our character is,” Hurley said. “We’re not laying down and accepting defeat and playing like losers and softies. We don’t do that here.”