DES MOINES, Iowa — The climb to the top of the mountain that is college basketball is an incredibly difficult one.
This season was an up-and-down roller coaster for UConn. And the Huskies have been on a quite a wild ride over the last week.
They came back from a nine-point half-time deficit to beat Cincinnati in four overtimes in the quarterfinals of the American Athletic Conference tournament. In the first round of the NCAA tournament against Colorado, UConn also came back from a nine-point margin at half time to win. Not to mention a 26-point blowout loss to SMU on March 3.
On Saturday night, the Huskies faced off against top-seeded Kansas. But this mountain was too tall, and UConn fell just short of the top.
No. 1 Kansas defeated No. 9 UConn, 73-61, in front of 16,824 at Wells Fargo Arena to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2013. The Jayhawks have won 16 in a row.
Wayne Selden Jr. led all scorers with 22 points to go along with eight rebounds. Perry Ellis added 21 for the Jayhawks and has scored over 20 points in six of the last seven games.
This was a difficult matchup from the start for the Huskies.
Unlike the previous two games where the Huskies found themselves trailing at half time, this time was much different. UConn (25-11) trailed by as many as 24 points in the first half. They eventually cut it to 20 by half time, the largest half-time deficit of the season.
Thanks to two separate runs of 16-0 and 19-0, the Jayhawks were in control the entire half. During those two runs, the Huskies didn’t score for a stretch of 10-plus combined minutes.
“They were doing everything possible,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “Controlling the backboards, getting out on the fast break, and their physicality is what’s shown to me the biggest thing we have to work on. Their bigs were sealing, getting whatever they wanted and they just took us out of our offense.”
Kansas (32-4) out-rebounded UConn in the first half 25-11, outscored them in the paint 16-6 and had six second-chance points compared to UConn’s zero. The Jayhawks made six of their 11 three-point attempts in the first half.
“It was tough,” Sterling Gibbs, who led the Huskies with 20 points, said. “[We] kind of dug ourselves in a hole in the first half, and they’re a good team so it was hard to get out of that hole.”
The Huskies weren’t getting any easy looks on the offensive end, either. UConn shot 26 percent (8 of 31) in the first half, compared to 56 percent (15 of 27) from Kansas.
Like Ollie said after the Colorado game, UConn has been through it all this season, so getting down at halftime wasn’t an option. It was more than previous times, but the Huskies came out with some flare to start the second half. They had to.
“We never stopped thinking that we were going to win the game,” Gibbs said. “We thought we were going to win the game for sure, even when we were down 20.”
UConn opened the second half on an 8-2 run and cut the Kansas lead to 14 (32-46).
A quick 9-0 run a few minutes later got the Huskies within single digits (41-50), the closest they’ve been since the first half. Kansas coach Bill Self took a timeout after the Jayhawks hadn’t scored in four minutes and 43 seconds.
“We knew our defense was going to get us back in the game,” Rodney Purvis said. “We wasn’t really worried about the offensive end. All season we have been feeding into defense all year. We know once we get the stops the offense will take care of itself.”
UConn had all the momentum. But after the timeout, Kansas settled down and went to Seldon and Ellis. Ellis hit a jumper, Seldon hit two shots around the rim and the Ellis finished with a dunk to put Kansas back up 15 with 7:11 left.
“That (Ellis’ jumper) to me was the biggest shot of the game if there was a biggest shot,” Self said. “Then we got a couple baskets after that.”
The Huskies wouldn’t get closer than 10 points the rest of the way. Selden emphatically finished an alley-oop from a Devonte’ Graham pass that was the dagger with 1:38 left.
“I think we scored 11 points in the first 10 minutes of the second half, something like that, and we didn’t make any shots,” Self said. “But somehow the guys rallied around it and was able to piece it together and make enough plays to win by double figures.”
Purvis finished with 17 points. Daniel Hamilton added 11 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
UConn outscored Kansas 37-29 in the second half and shot 42 percent (13 of 31). But the Huskies found out why the Jayhawks were the No. 1 overall seed. Kansas had too many options all over the court.
This time, the deficit was too much to overcome.
“They did a great job defensively, overplaying us,” Omar Calhoun said. “It was hard to run our offense. They have a great team and a great coach. We couldn’t run our plays, and took a lot of tough shots. It was hard to come back down 20.”