NEW YORK– Sometimes, third time’s not the charm.
After completing comebacks against Columbia and Monmouth in the past week, the UConn men’s basketball team found themselves in another halftime deficit against Syracuse at Madison Square Garden.
A third straight comeback was not in the cards, however, as too many first half turnovers and fouls put the Huskies in too deep a hole. Syracuse, while not playing too much better, rode a season-best performances from two freshman and a 22-point performance from Tyus Battle en route to a 72-63 win in Tuesday night’s Jimmy V Classic.
“We knew they were scoring, they were rebounding,” Christian Vital, who exploded in the second half for 13 points, said. “We had to keep them off the glass, but it just basically came down to us not getting enough stops.”
UConn, who found themselves down by 17 at one point, brought the deficit down to eight with seven minutes to go in the game, but too many missed opportunities was the Huskies’ downfall.
Syracuse was just begging UConn to take the game from them. A turnover allowed Mamadou Diarra to draw a foul, but he missed both his free throws. Vital missed a layup, Diarra grabbed the offensive rebound but missed the layup. They got another offensive rebound, but Jalen Adams, who led UConn with 22 points, missed a 3-pointer with five minutes to go.
“At the end of the day, these guys gotta step up,” UConn Head Coach Kevin Ollie said. “We can’t play cool. I thought we played too cool. We got (within eight points), playing cool, turnover, turnover, turnover. You know, and then we didn’t box out.”
Freshmen Matt Moyer and Oshae Brissett, who was averaging 4.3 points per game coming into Tuesday’s game, combined for 34 points. Moyer recorded a season-high 18 and a team-best 10 rebounds.
“Matt Moyer had a huge game. He’s really struggled all year,” Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim said. “He got offensive boards, he got three offensive rebound tips, and he was a big difference in the game.”
It wasn’t just Moyer who beat UConn on the glass. Syracuse out-rebounded UConn 37-26, including 14 offensive rebounds to UConn’s seven. Diarra led the Huskies with seven.
UConn struggled on the defensive end from start to finish. Syracuse took advantage of their size to not only score 17 second-chance points, but to hold UConn to zero. While the two teams shot almost the same from the floor—Syracuse at 42.6 percent and UConn at 43.1 percent—UConn committed too many mistakes from the onset to bounce back.
The Huskies won the opening tip, but Vital turned the ball over not even 30 seconds into the game. Battle poked the ball from Vital in the lane, missed the 3-point shot on his end, but an offensive rebound and a layup from Brissett put Syracuse on the board first.
“Two freshmen pretty much beat us tonight,” Ollie said. “They’re really two good freshmen, but they’re not that good. We have to do a better job understanding we can’t allow them to win the game.”
UConn’s offensive performance was just that—offensive. To open up the game, they had a three-minute stretch where they had three turnovers, three fouls and just one shot attempt, a missed 3-pointer from Antwoine Anderson.
Syracuse recorded two steals, two rebounds and seven points to take a commanding 11-3 lead after four minutes of play. After 12 minutes, UConn had committed seven turnovers to four rebounds. The Orange, by contrast, turned the ball over four times and recorded 13 rebounds.
“We knew they were going to be in that zone,” Vital said. “Their wingspan in the zone is something we talked about, so we just (needed to) make better passes.”
UConn fought back after a 10-5 run, capped off by a pretty feed to Eric Cobb from Vital, bringing the score to 16-13 with 12:36 to play in the first half. But the Orange exploded on a run of their own, outscoring UConn 21-4 over nine minutes to expand their lead to 17 with three minutes left in the half.
Defensive mix-ups, uncontested jumpers and too many UConn fouls allowed Syracuse to drive to the basket more freely. They ended the half with 13 turnovers and 11 fouls while the Orange had seven steals and 14 points off free throws.
UConn cut the deficit to 40-29 by halftime, but it was the fourth straight game in which the Huskies allowed their opponents to score 40+ points in the opening half.
“I think we just gotta be a lot smarter with the ball, take our time and just make the simple play,” Adams said.
The second half was more of the same—both teams opened up their offensive possessions with turnovers. UConn committed only four turnovers while Syracuse had eight, but the Huskies continued to get beaten by the zone defense, and the pace of the game was plagued with too many fouls for any team to get into a rhythm. Both teams totaled 56 free throws over 40 minutes of play.
A dejected UConn crowd found something to cheer for when Adams and Vital hit back-to-back 3-pointers halfway through the second half. Vital then followed up with another 3-pointer, a steal and a slick pass to Adams to bring UConn within nine with eight minutes left.
Syracuse missed shots, turned the ball over and made all the offensive mistakes UConn made in the first half, but the Huskies repeatedly failed to capitalize by way of missed shots and rushed possessions. Syracuse’s height was simply too much for the UConn guards to overcome.
“We were right there,” Ollie said about the final minutes of the game. “We gotta take those opportunities and run with them. But it’s coming down to getting stops and rebounding. So no matter what we did, we didn’t do that consistently.”