Photos by Kevin Lindstrom/The Daily Campus
A double-overtime loss to Xavier. A three-point defeat to Indiana. A double overtime heartbreaker against Wichita State. A last-minute loss to Villanova. And on Thursday, an excruciating 63-59 loss to No. 25 Houston. At what point does something go right for UConn?
Playing a third-straight game against a ranked opponent, the Huskies (10-8, 1-4 The American) once again simply couldn’t close out down the stretch. UConn led for the first 17 minutes of the second half, but the Cougars (15-4, 5-1) came out on top despite a wild final sequence that nearly saw Houston give the game away.
“We played our asses off,” head coach Dan Hurley told the Journal Inquirer’s Neill Ostrout. “We will break through.”
Senior Christian Vital led the team with 14 points, but had just four in the second half. With an essential no-show from Josh Carlton, junior Isaiah Whaley was the surprise star, setting new career-highs in points (13) and rebounds (11) for the first double-double of his career.
“I really thought we had it this time, this one really hurts,” Whaley told Dom Amore of the Hartford Courant. ‘These games hurt more than the blowouts.”
In one of the most poorly officiated games you’ll ever see, there were 54 fouls called between the two teams. Sid Wilson and James Bouknight both fouled out for UConn, the latter of which on a game-changing double-technical that gave Bouknight his fifth personal. Hurley was wide-eyed, mouth-agape at the officiating all night, though the refs nearly helped the Huskies pull out a miracle in the final minute.
After two free throws from Houston’s Caleb Mills, who had a game-high 20 points off the bench, it seemed all wrapped up as the Cougars led by six with 12 seconds remaining. Then all hell broke loose.
Freshman Jalen Gaffney got a quick layup to cut the deficit to four. Hurley immediately called a timeout, and Houston star DeJon Jarreau taunted him as he walked by. Jarreau was promptly assessed a technical, Gaffney drilled both free throws, and the deficit was two. Then, even with a timeout in their back pocket, the Cougars were called for a five-second violation on the inbound, giving UConn the ball and a chance to win with eight seconds remaining.
But, as it has all season, UConn fell just short. Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson called a timeout, knowing that Hurley could not sub out senior Temi Aiyegbusi, who hasn’t scored all season, because no time had come off the clock. The Cougars defended UConn’s inbounds play with that in mind, leaving Aiyegbusi open in the corner. Aiyegbusi passed up an open 3 for a mid-range jumper which clanked off the rim and sealed the win for Houston.
“They were smart,” Hurley said regarding Houston’s defense on the final play. “They didn’t play Temi and funneled the ball that way.”
It was whistle-filled, closely contested first half, featuring seven lead changes. The Huskies led 30-25 at halftime, largely thanks to some great work on the boards, holding the relentless Cougars rebounders to just five offensive boards.
And up until 2:53 remaining, UConn clung to that lead in the second half. After a quiet first half, Bouknight was huge. When Houston pulled within one at 37-36 and things seemed to be slipping away from UConn, it was Bouknight who turned the tide. The freshman got a steal on one end and a jaw-dropping dunk in transition on the other with seven minutes to go.
But immediately after, Bouknight picked up his fourth personal, forcing him to the pine, and the Cougars responded with five straight. Shortly after returning, he was T’d up for clapping in the face of Brison Greshman, who had done the same to Gaffney earlier in the night. There went UConn’s best offensive option, turning the focus to Vital and Alterique Gilbert, who were both once again Jekyll and Hyde for the Huskies.
Gilbert struggled from the field (3-of-11) and even more from the charity stripe (1-of-7) all night, but had a fantastic sequence late in the half, drilling a step-back 3 and forcing a turnover on consecutive trips. But he immediately followed it with an all-too-familiar head-scratching sequence, missing both free throws and then coughing it up on back-to-back possessions which together led to an easy five points for Houston.
“Al’s distraught, he’s hurt,” Hurley said, as reported by Amore. “He wants to win so bad. He’s played hard enough and well enough to give us a chance to win the last two games. We just have to work on better decision-making. I think the free throws unnerved him.”
With just one win in five conference games, UConn now sits in a tie with USF for last-place in the American Athletic Conference standings. The Huskies have yet to win a true road game (0-4), and have lost four games to ranked opponents by six points or less. Oh, and things don’t get any easier with Tulsa (10-2, 5-1) coming to town on Sunday, who just blew out Memphis by 40 points.
“I know what feeling like you don’t have a chance feels like. This is a totally different feeling,” Vital told Amore.
The Huskies continue to battle as hard as they have in the last five years, but it’s fair to wonder how many more heart-wrenching defeats a team can endure.