Cincinnati’s Cane Broome hit one of two 3-pointers with one minute and 29 seconds left on the clock. A one-point lead turned into a four-point one. Broome hit his second of two 3-pointers with 12 seconds left on the clock. Again, a one-point lead turned into a four-point one.
Like that, victory came in and out of reach in the span 77 seconds. That’s the kind of luck the UConn men’s basketball team (13-13, 4-9 The American) has been experiencing over this five-game losing streak, its longest since 2006-07.
“It’s just a team, a program that has a long way to go,” head coach Dan Hurley said.
A 15-point deficit turned into a one-point lead, which was lost, gained and lost again in UConn’s 64-60 loss to Cincinnati (22-4, 11-2 The American) Sunday. Christian Vital led all scorers with 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and Alterique Gilbert was close behind with 13 points on 5-for-18 shooting and five assists.
Right off the bat, Hurley sent a message that he hasn’t been happy with the team’s performance as of late. Gilbert, Vital and Sidney Wilson were out of the starting lineup, replaced by Brendan Adams, Tarin Smith and Eric Cobb. The duo of Josh Carlton and Tyler Polley stayed.
“It was a combination of sending a message to players in the program … of me not wanting them in there as well as violating the conduct that you need to [have], the manner with which you need to carry yourself as a member of my program,” Hurley said.
The first half was a mixed bag of excitement and dullness. The Huskies started off slow with the new lineup, but once Gilbert was subbed in, he immediately dished an assist to Polley, who sunk a corner 3. The two teams exchanged runs in the first 10 minutes and neither played particularly well.
That is, until Cobb started making plays. Cobb got an and-one, an offensive board and two layups in a short span of time to not only get UConn back within a possession, but he sent Cincinnati into a timeout and got the XL Center crowd on its feet.
“Eric gave us a great lift there in the first half when we were dying to score,” Hurley said. “It was good for us offensively. He did a nice job on the offensive glass.”
After the timeout with 53 seconds left, Cincinnati’s Mamoudou Diarra turned the ball over in the paint and UConn’s Wilson took the ball down court for a dunk. But he took about four steps too many and was called for traveling. What could have been a thunderous end to the first half resulted in an offensive board and a buzzer-beating layup on the other end for the Bearcats.
The depleted Huskies found themselves down only 32-29 at the end of the first half, though. There seemed to be a chance for UConn to pull off a comeback and, with the honoring of the 1999 National Championship team at halftime, it seemed perhaps destined to happen.
But as UConn often does, it got off to a horribly slow start in the second half, allowing Cincinnati to go on a 12-2 run and open up a 13-point lead eight minutes into the half. In those minutes, the Huskies hit one field goal and shot 8.3 percent.
“They’re a great defensive team, obviously with Jalen out and with Al still trying to work his way back in, we’re not a prolific offensive team. We’ve got holes across the board,” Hurley said. “Lack of competitiveness on the offensive glass bothered me in the first eight to 10 minutes there. Lack of depth, lack of physicality.”
But the Huskies, always filled with fight, didn’t bow down. They cut a 15-point deficit into an eight-point one with seven minutes to go. After hitting some free throws to inch closer, Vital wrestled on the ground for a loose ball and passed it off to Gilbert, who passed it to Polley who sunk a moving 3-pointer to bring the score to 50-47 with 5:57 to go.
Carlton came up with a huge block on the next possession and Vital drew a foul and hit both free throws to bring UConn within one. Then, Vital drew another foul, hit another pair of free throws and UConn’s 16-0 run was complete.
Though he didn’t make that much of an offensive impact, Hurley said Gilbert’s leadership finally picked up to guide the Huskies through a rough patch.
“I just thought I had to be more aggressive, like, in my leadership,” Gilbert said. “I wasn’t making a lot of shots, but I felt like I could lead a group of guys and they just followed me.”
The two teams exchanged baskets in the next few minutes, keeping the game within a possession for the Huskies. That’s when Broome hit that first dagger, a shot from the outside right that put Cincinnati up by four. A Carlton free throw and a Smith reverse layup got the Huskies back in it with 42 seconds to go.
The UConn defense was able to prevent Jarron Cumberland from hitting a layup on the next possession, but after a lot of tipping, Keith Williams was able to secure the offensive rebound and chuck it out to Broome, who hit the final dagger with one second left on the shot clock and 12 seconds left on the game clock.
Broome, an East Hartford native and a 24 percent 3-point shooter, has been struggling from the offensive side this season, but the two late shots have started to boost his confidence.
“[Confidence has] really been my main thing this season,” Broome said. “I got most of my family and friends here today … this is definitely a good moment to come home, see my nephew that was just born, and hit those shots. It just feels good.”