Just one night after dismantling Syracuse, the UConn men’s basketball team looked lifeless for most of Friday’s game against Iowa, falling 91-72 in the final of the 2K Empire Classic at Madison Square Garden.
The Huskies turned it over 17 times, missed their first 12 3-pointers, and head coach Dan Hurley was ejected with 1:44 remaining after his second technical foul, in what was a poorly-officiated and poorly-played game from start to finish. A late rally gave UConn a glimmer of hope, but the Hawkeyes, as they did all night long, clamped down and closed it out.
“It was our first adversity in a game in terms of falling behind. We got behind, and it wasn’t selfishness that kicked in, it was—these guys just wanted this win so bad,” said Hurley. “That’s a team of guys that desperately wanted to win something. You’re a basketball player at UConn, you want to win something.”
Games don’t get much more psychologically and physically draining than a thriller over a heated rival at the Garden. With another game just 24 hours later, there’s always the fear of an emotional letdown. To say the Iowa game was a letdown is an understatement.
Everything which had worked so well on Thursday abandoned the Huskies (3-1) against Iowa (4-0). The frontcourt play, which had been tough on both ends against Syracuse, was soft and foul-happy. The 3-point shooting, where the Huskies put on a clinic on Thursday, was abysmal. Until the final five minutes of the game, the passion and energy was nowhere to be found, and even head coach Dan Hurley, who made national waves for his victory celebration on Thursday, had to spend more time jawing with the referees than energizing his team.
“We dug too deep of a hole and had to try to catch up, but I love the way the guys fought through to the end,” Hurley said. “To walk away with a split, we’re not happy about that, we’ll learn from it, and hopefully the next real big game like this, we’ll be able to perform a little bit better.”
It quickly became clear that when the shots weren’t falling to begin the game, everything else fell apart. Senior Jalen Adams said that especially after a lights-out shooting performance against Syracuse, the team allowed some ice-cold early shooting to derail the game plan.
“We let our offense dictate the way we played. We have to start with defense, and let our defense get our offense going,” Adams said. “We weren’t hitting shots today, and we kind of just fell back and weren’t as aggressive as we should’ve been.”
The Huskies should hope that the first half of Friday’s game will be the worst half of basketball they play all season. The officiating was inexplicably awful on both sides, but UConn was arguably worse.
A day after tearing the tough Syracuse zone apart, the Huskies looked completely out-of-sync against the Iowa defense. In the first six minutes, UConn had more turnovers (7) than points scored (4), and trailed 12-4. By the end of the half, the turnover count had risen to 13, and the deficit to 16.
“The ball was sticking for us. Once we got down, we were trying to score seven-point buckets, eight-point baskets, we stopped trusting each other,” Hurley said. “What’s made us good offensively got away from us today.”
After a career night against the Orange, senior Eric Cobb was the only positive of Friday’s first half, continuing his strong play with eight points and three rebounds. Apart from Cobb, the Hawkeyes had an answer for everything. UConn went on a 6-0 run to make it 33-22 Iowa with 4:15 in the half, and Iowa promptly responded with an 8-2 run of their own.
“When offense isn’t happening, we needed to keep that game six to eight [point deficit] going into halftime by being gritty on the glass and being gritty by getting stops,” Hurley said. “We allowed our lack of offense to affect the mood in huddles, we didn’t have the same look in our faces. When offense isn’t flowing, you gotta stay in the game with your grittiness, toughness, rebounding and defense.”
The Huskies are best offensively when they get out and run in transition, which they did a lot of in the fast-paced Syracuse win. On Friday, however, they were over-dribbling, settling for long 3s and turning the ball over at an astounding rate.
Things didn’t get any better in the second half.
Iowa came out just as hot after the break, led by Tyler Cook and Luka Garza, who both had it all working offensively all night long. The two combined for 48 points on 17-of-28 shooting, and Garza was eventually named MVP of the tournament.
With 10 minutes remaining, Hurley was assessed his first technical foul as UConn head coach, arguing a non-call on Tyler Polley. The crowd, which had been silenced all night, erupted in “Danny Hurley” chants, and on the Huskies’ very next possession, they finally hit their first three of the night courtesy of Alterique Gilbert. UConn finished just 4-of-26 from beyond the arc.
UConn finally started looking like themselves deep in the second half, but it was too little, too late. A rapid-fire 14-2 UConn run cut the deficit from 25 to 13 with 4:26 remaining, but that’s as close it got, as the Huskies just couldn’t get a stop on the other end.
Hurley picked up a second technical with 1:44 left in regulation, and by rule was ejected from the game. That sparked the loudest ovation of the night, with the entire UConn faithful rising to their feet as he exited. Hurley seemed just as surprised as anyone about the call, and after the game said that he was talking to Adams, not the referee, when the technical was called, and did not receive a further explanation.
“I probably don’t want to put myself in the minds of that crew tonight,” said Hurley. “[Referee Bo Boroski] overheard a conversation I was having with a player on my team and thought that was the appropriate decision. I have a hard job, the players have a hard job, the referees have a hard job. We all have to be accountable for our performance, or at least hopefully we all are.”
Adams led the team with 20 points, but was just 8-of-18 from the field with three turnovers. Cobb was once again UConn’s most effective player, posting 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting to go along with six offensive rebounds. He was named to the All-Tournament team after the loss.
“It was a big achievement, but it’s really not about me,” said Cobb on the award. “It’s a team game. I’m just focused on the team and we just have to get better.”
The Huskies came crashing back to earth on Friday, but they’ll depart NYC with a statement win under their belts heading into a four-game homestand, beginning with Cornell on Tuesday. Their head coach is happy with the results so far, but knows there’s work to be done.
“This isn’t some Disney movie where overnight this whole thing’s just gonna—like the Mighty Ducks or whatever,” Hurley said. “It’s gonna take us time to get better. If you had said to me six months ago that we’d come to the Garden, beat Syracuse and take a split, I’d be thrilled with where we’re at after four. That being said, I did not like the job I did getting my team ready for today. So I failed today, it’s bitter taste for me.”