It was a tale of two halves for the UConn Huskies on Thursday night against conference rival Tulsa. In the first half, the ball effectively rode the hot hand of Christian Vital to a 40-31 halftime lead. Maybe the Huskies thought that the 10,656 fans in attendance deserved their money’s worth, because they let Tulsa back into the ball game with an early halftime run.
“We played an incredible first half,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “Second half our defense let us down.”
Tulsa attacked UConn’s porous defense and received an unconscious shooting performance from guard Sterling Taplin that gave the Golden Hurricane just enough to escape the XL Center with a win.
UConn regained their fighting spirit late, but it was too late. The damage had already been done. UConn had a chance to win late but couldn’t come through in the end.
An eventful finish
Despite the slow start to the second half, UConn was still in position to win the game late.
Two threes by forward Terry Larrier in the span of 37 seconds cut the deficit to one with just 1:31 remaining.
After Tulsa guard Lawson Korita missed a layup, Christian Vital took the ball the length of the court and drew a foul to earn a trip to the charity stripe with 1:13 on the clock.
After Vital hit his first free throw, there was confusion on the court as the officials gathered for an extended period of time to review the shot clock. The end result was that both teams had 20 less seconds to work with than they originally thought.
The slight delay didn’t rattle Vital, and he hit his second free throw to put the Huskies up 69-68. It was the last lead UConn would have.
Taplin immediately responded with an uncontested layup to swing the lead back to Tulsa’s side.
Jalen Adams tried to respond with an elbow jumper, but his shot was wildly off as it had been for most of the game. Adams finished the game 4-14 from the field.
Still, UConn had a chance for a game-winning shot attempt in the final seconds. Corey Henderson was fouled with seven seconds left for the one and one opportunity. Henderson’s first shot clanked off the rim, and if UConn was just able to pull in the rebound, they would have had the opportunity for the last shot trailing by one.
Instead, Tulsa big man Junior Etou was the first one to ball and earned another Tulsa trip to the free throw line, hitting one of his two attempts.
With the game in his hand, Adams had a shot for redemption but couldn’t get his layup attempt to fall.
“You have to finish games,” Ollie said. “Even with that poor defense and drive-bys… you still have a one possession game.”
Sharp shooting Sterling
The NBA’s Three-Point Contest will be held in Los Angeles on Saturday night, but the best shooting display you’ll see all week was at the XL Center on Thursday night.
In the first half, it looked like the game was going to come down to a three-point shotout between Vital and Taplin. Both guards exchanged threes in an impromptu game of “Anything you can do I can do better.” The two guards combined for 21 of both team’s 36 points from behind the arc.
Vital cooled off in the second half. Taplin did not, finishing the game 7-8 from distance.
Taplin was so blistering hot, he already established a new career high for himself with over 12 minutes remaining in the game. Taplin finished with 30 points.
Vital shouldered the blame for Taplin’s offensive explosion.
“I can’t allow my matchup to go for 30 in our house,” Vital said. “Even if we’re half zone, half man or whatever it is, I can’t allow that to happen.”
Controlling the glass
Even though they let Etou get the most important rebound of the game, the conference’s second leading rebounder was held in check on the boards for most of the game.
Etou was held to six rebounds and only had two in the first half. Factor in the 15-6 edge in offensive rebounds, and it was actually a great performance for the Huskies on the boards.
Ollie attributed his team’s success on the glass to tenaciousness and dedication in practice.
“We just catch bodies,” Ollie said. “That was a point of emphasis throughout all our practices.”
The road ahead
Despite the disappointing finish, Ollie gave a small uplifting message after the game.
“We’re gonna stay positive, just going to go back to practice and try to go get East Carolina,” Ollie said.
UConn and ECU will tip off at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday in East Carolina.
Bryan Lambert is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.