For about a five-minute stretch of the first half, the UConn men’s basketball team was playing as well as it has all season. The ball was flying around the court, finding open shooters with ease, while the defense was absolutely clamping down on Indiana’s playmakers.
Unfortunately, the other 35 minutes weren’t quite as easy on the eyes. Actually, it was excruciating.
“We didn’t have many guys show up and play very well today,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “There’s probably 25 different ways we could’ve won that game, but we just reverted back to playing the way that isn’t going to allow you to beat good teams.”
UConn (6-3) lost to Indiana (9-1) 57-54, playing at Madison Square Garden for the first and only time this season. Next year, the Garden will once again be home to UConn’s conference tournament, and it sure felt like a March atmosphere, with a raucous Huskies crowd in attendance. But outside of a couple bright spots, UConn looked far from a March-ready team.
The Huskies turned the ball over 22 times, looking entirely out-of-sync on nearly every offensive possession. Veteran guards Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital once again simply didn’t have it, and instead of settling into a playmaking role as Gilbert has done so well lately, they only forced the issue further.
“22 turnovers versus a team that’s not really pressuring, it’s shocking that we only lost by three,” Hurley said. “I thought [Gilbert and Vital] struggled from the beginning, really. Christian tried to do too much and the shot selection wasn’t good early, and Al got away from playing point guard today and tried to do too much.”
Despite how poorly UConn played on the offensive end, its hard-nosed defense once again kept the Huskies in the game down the stretch. Trailing by three, UConn had a chance to tie the game on its final possession. Fittingly, hopes of overtime were dashed by another Vital turnover, his seventh of the game.
“Bad play by me,” Vital said about that final possession. “Bad play by me. Bad decision. Al and I have to be better, those turnovers are on us.”
UConn led by 10 well into the second half, mainly due to the superstar-level play of Akok Akok on both ends. Akok had three blocks before the first media timeout, capping a 15-2 UConn run with a deep 3-pointer. In his Garden debut, Akok finished with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting with five blocks, five rebounds and zero turnovers.
But Akok found himself in foul trouble in the first half, picking up his second personal with over five minutes remaining. It’s no surprise that Indiana’s 18-3 run to close the half began when Akok checked out.
“It was tough. It was heartbreaking,” Akok said. “When you prepare for this for a couple days, prepare really hard, it would have been cool to beat this team at MSG, my first time here.”
Junior Josh Carlton was the only other player who earned Hurley’s approval, going for an efficient 18 points and five boards, though he did have four turnovers and did not shoot a free throw.
“It really was a lost opportunity,” Carlton said. “We beat ourselves rather than them beating us.”
When UConn struggles, it usually coincides with two frustrating issues: negative production from the starting backcourt (Vital and Gilbert combined for 10 points on 18% shooting with 10 turnovers) and essentially zero production from the bench.
The latter once again reared its ugly head on Tuesday night. Sidney Wilson was the only bench player to score, contributing five points, two blocks and four boards in 11 energizing minutes.
The rest? Freshman James Bouknight had a disappointing MSG debut, missing all three of his shots and turning it over three times. Jalen Gaffney and Isaiah Whaley each played just two minutes. Brendan Adams had more turnovers (three) than shots attempted (two).
“When Brendan doesn’t have it and Gaffney’s not ready and James looks out of it, there aren’t a lot of alternatives for us,” Hurley said.
On a night when UConn could’ve come away with a statement victory on a big stage, earning some much-needed national recognition, Tuesday’s loss felt like a major missed opportunity for the program.
Andrew Morrison is the sports editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. He tweets @asmor24.