Wednesday night was supposed to be a huge night in the world of UConn men’s basketball. The Huskies were expected to breeze by Saint Joseph’s at Gampel for their second win of the season and potentially pick up a major commitment at halftime.
Only one of those came to fruition.
On the bright side, four-star center Javonte Brown-Ferguson announced his commitment to UConn during the half. Brown-Ferguson, who picked UConn over Kansas and Texas A&M, plans to reclassify to the Class of 2020, joining four-star forward Andre Jackson in next year’s recruiting class. The seven-footer from Ontario said that UConn’s impending move to the Big East played a major role in his decision.
“Me and my family believe that UConn was the best fit overall,” Brown-Ferguson told basketball insider Adam Zagoria. “There’s a lot of buzz around them since they’re going back to the Big East and that will bring a lot of attention around my name.”
Then there was the actual game on Wednesday — and it was a disaster from the opening tip for UConn.
Although the Huskies battled back in the second half, an absolutely abysmal first half simply buried UConn, falling to the 15-point underdog Saint Joe’s, 96-87, on Wednesday night.
The Huskies (1-1) spotted Saint Joseph’s (2-1) a 14-point lead to open the game, missing 10 of their first 11 shots, and the first half somehow only got worse from there. The Hawks led by as many as 27 in the half as UConn shot just 27% from the floor.
“We obviously have a long way to go,” a defeated Dan Hurley said after the game. “To go down 14-0 and offer that little resistance to start the game … when your season is just beginning and you’re trying to put three years of ugly losing behind you, what an inspiring and terrible way to start a game. I’ve never coached a team that’s been in that position.”
Facing a team known for its outside shooting, UConn looked wholly unprepared for Saint Joe’s 3-point onslaught. The Hawks made eight of their first 11 3-pointers and 10 in the first half alone, many of which were uncontested. SJU’s Ryan Daly, who had six 3-pointers and a career-high 29 points in the game, singlehandedly outscored UConn 19-18 through the first eight minutes.
“We had a three-day prep for this where the entire point of emphasis was guarding that 3-point line, and aside from Akok, we didn’t,” Hurley said.
Akok, playing in his second game at UConn, was the only one who earned Hurley’s approval, putting together an efficient 4-for-5 night with 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Despite his strong play, he was visibly demoralized after the loss.
“Just energy, overall,” Akok said on what has been the root of UConn’s first half struggles. “We’ve just got to come out with more energy and attitude … I feel like I’m an energy guy for this team, and I’m just trying to do my part.”
An 11-2 UConn run toward the end of the half cut the deficit to 16 at the half, though it felt much larger. Senior Christian Vital, who had 26 points and 16 rebounds but shot just 5-of-21, accepted blame for the team’s defensive lapses in the first half.
“I can’t explain it, it was just not paying attention to detail,” Vital said. “Coaching staff let us know leading up to the game that they’re a 3-point shooting team, so that one was completely on us, and I’ll take responsibility on me for not making sure the team was locked in enough. I’ll take that one.”
Vital and fellow backcourt starter Alterique Gilbert were a combined 10-of-40 in the game with six turnovers against just four assists. By comparison, the rest of the team combined for only 23 shots, and the UConn bench was outscored 27-5.
“I mean, Al and Christian took 40 shots, that’s too many shots,” Hurley said. “The whole point of emphasis here was they’re undersized, so we want to drive the ball to the front of the rim and share the ball … The variety of long twos that we shot off the dribble today was mind-boggling.”
UConn made things plenty interesting in the second but just couldn’t overcome the brutal start. A pair of Vital free throws brought the Huskies within three points, 77-74, with 5:32 remaining. For a moment, with the Gampel crowd finally on its feet, it appeared UConn would prevail. But that’s as close as the Huskies would get, giving up some backbreaking offensive rebounds and costly turnovers as the Hawks shut the door on the comeback.
“I put no stock in cutting the lead,” Hurley said. “Down three, there were chances to get the ball, a one-possession game, where we had people watching instead of fighting for their lives to get the defensive rebound. That’s a culture thing, that’s accepting losing, and you start wearing it like underwear, like it’s in your bones … It seems like it’s a burden instead of trying to change it.”
The Huskies have a prime opportunity to bounce back with the most highly anticipated game of the year this weekend against No. 15 Florida at Gampel. Vital knows the importance of putting the loss behind them and showing up with something to prove on Sunday.
“We have no choice but to,” Vital said. “We’ve got a ranked team coming into our place, we gotta move on…This isn’t high school sports or anything like that, we’re damn near professionals and we need to act like it.”