The UConn men’s basketball team added another painful loss onto the pile Thursday night at the XL Center in Hartford, blowing a 12-point lead to conference opponent Tulsa in a 73-71 defeat.
Sterling Taplin led the Golden Hurricane (15-10, 8-5 The American) with a career-high 30 points, including the go-ahead layup with 40 seconds remaining, to give Tulsa a two-game sweep over UConn in the season series.
“I thought we played an incredible first half, sharing the ball,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said after the game. “And in the second half, our defense let us down. You have to finish games, even with that poor defense. Drive-bys, blow-bys, we still had that game.”
Christian Vital led UConn (12-14, 5-8 The American) with 20 points and 10 rebounds, but it was Jalen Adams who seized the ball on the game’s final possession, driving into the paint for a bizarre game-tying shot attempt that flew far past the basket as the buzzer sounded.
“I thought Jalen got called for a foul (on) that last possession, but I guess (officials) Brent (Hampton) on the baseline and Ed (Corbett) thought differently,” Ollie said.
UConn hit their first shot of the game, a mid-range jumper from Adams, to begin a half of hot shooting. However, Adams didn’t contribute much to it, and that jumper represented the only points he’d score in the first half.
Vital took the reins shortly after, quickly heating up with a trio of 3-pointers early in the first half. Taplin matched him shot for shot, hitting four 3-pointers of his own in the first half to go into the break with a team-leading 14 points.
Vital’s shooting pushed the Huskies out to a 19-13 edge 7:19 into the game, although Tulsa struck right back with seven of the next points.
Then came a pair of unlikely developments: 3-point sharpshooting from freshman forward Tyler Polley and a flurry of offensive rebounding from the young Huskies. UConn went into the halftime break with seven offensive rebounds, a number they hadn’t reached in three of their previous four outings.
As for Polley, he came into Thursday night’s tilt with just a 6-for-23 mark from downtown this season with only two of those makes in conference play. He had yet to hit multiple threes in a game. But in the first half against Tulsa, Polley went 3-for-3 from downtown to power to a strong offensive stretch and a 40-31 halftime lead.
“My coaching staff, my teammates, my friends, everyone is just giving me confidence every single day to shoot the ball, so I just came to the game with that confidence,” Polley said.
“Getting extra shots after practice, before practice – it just paid off.”
Antwoine Anderson also enjoyed shooting success, going 3-for-4 and 2-for-3 from deep as UConn recorded their highest-scoring first half of the season. They even shared the ball well, recording 10 assists on 14 field goals.
Predictably, UConn came out of the locker room for the second half and quickly lost control of the game. After a pair of Josh Carlton free throws put the Huskies up 46-39, Tulsa ripped off a 14-4 spurt to come back and take the lead to the dismay of a restless XL Center crowd.
It was Taplin that led the way with an unconscious display of scoring. He scored 13 points early in the half for the Golden Hurricane, giving him a career-high 27 points with 13 minutes to go. He eventually finished with 30 points, including a 7-for-8 shooting display from downtown.
“He was my matchup and I can’t go allow a player to go for 30,” Vital said. “(Taplin) is a good player, obviously, we have history going to St. Thomas More together, but I can’t allow my matchup to go for 30 in our house. Even if we’re half-zone, half-man or whatever. I can’t allow that to happen.”
Tulsa’s leading scorer, Junior Etou, entered the fray with a pair of 3-pointers to put the Huskies down 62-57 with 8:29 to go, forcing an Ollie timeout. Etou finished with 15 points, although he had less of an impact on the boards (six rebounds) despite coming in as the American’s second-leading rebounder at eight per game.
UConn awoke the crowd with 5:58 left with a pair of buckets inside from Carlton, which put the rookie big man at 12 points for the night. Scoring inside was the only way they could get on the board, because the perimeter shooting fell off a cliff. At one point, the Huskies were 1-for-9 from 3-point range in the second half.
“We settled for too many threes,” Ollie said. “We settled for three, after three, after three, after three, and that’s toughness. You have to drive the basketball.”
Terry Larrier, who struggled immensely throughout the night, came alive with two minutes left and UConn trailing by seven, hitting a pair of 3-pointers off passes from Adams (11 assists) for his only points of the night. Vital followed with a pair of free throws, suddenly giving UConn an unlikely lead with 54 seconds left.
Then Taplin struck right back with the go-ahead layup, blowing right by the UConn defense, followed by another nifty Tulsa basket off a long inbounds pass to make the lead three with 14 seconds left.
“At the end of the game, they made more shots and they got more stops than us,” Vital said.
“So credit to them, they played a better night of basketball than us, and we just got to put it together for 40 minutes.”
Missed free throws from the Golden Hurricane, did, however, allow UConn the chance to tie or win the game, and with seven seconds left, Adams took the ball and drove all the way down the court and into the paint only to throw up a wild layup attempt that barely glanced the backboard.
UConn returns to action Sunday afternoon on the road at East Carolina.
Tyler Keating is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @tylerskeating.