Dan Hurley strides onto the court ahead of UConn’s battle against Tulsa. Black suit, white sneakers. He greets Tulsa head coach Frank Haith, chats with Jim Calhoun and shares a laugh with the officials — probably the last time he’ll send a smile in their direction.
It’s a big day for Hurley’s squad. Not only are the Huskies taking on the surprise first-place Golden Hurricane, but they’re also eager to put a string of excruciating losses behind them. A win on Sunday could be the start of the turnaround. A loss could be the dagger.
On UConn’s opening possession, Josh Carlton misses a point blank layup. Hurley, unusually, says nothing. Instead, he can only put his head in his hands. His vocal chords will thank him later.
It takes almost three minutes for either team to score, and UConn finally gets on the board first on a corner trey from James Bouknight. The crowd is finally allowed to sit. Hurley doesn’t even consider it.
Five minutes later, the teams have combined for just 11 points, not surprising given the defensive strength of both teams. Christian Vital hoists up a signature deep 3 and immediately earns a spot on the bench, getting an earful from Hurley on the way there. On another lackluster possession minutes later, Alterique Gilbert is forced to chuck up a stepback 3. Hurley punches the air in frustration and yells some words not entirely fit for print.
“What are you DOING?” Hurley screams at Carlton as he comes to bench after failing to box out, allowing an offensive board and an and-one. Carlton wouldn’t see the floor again until the second half. Next possession, Sidney Wilson commits an unwise foul on a 3-pointer. Hurley stares off into the distance silently, perhaps questioning his career path.
When you watch Hurley, you quickly realize that the man rarely celebrates. An Akok block, maybe. A dive after a loose ball, without a doubt. But when a Husky drains a big shot, while the crowd cheers and the bench dances, Hurley is only concerned with hollering at his guys to get back on defense.
One of those rare expressions of joy comes late in the first half as UConn ties it at 19 apiece. Wilson rips down an offensive board, whips it underneath to Akok and Akok throws down a superhuman reverse dunk. Hurley leaps high enough to touch the rim, windmilling his arm to bring the crowd to its feet.
When the halftime buzzer sounds, UConn trails by five. Hurley sheds his suit jacket as he saunters into the locker room — it’s a miracle it lasted that long.
Early in the second half, some stellar individual defense from Vital leads to a Tulsa shot clock violation. Vital hustles down the court, glancing towards the bench long enough for him and Hurley to make eye contact for half a second. Hurley gives his senior guard a nod of approval. After two years together, words are no longer necessary.
The Huskies fall behind by as many as nine, but claw their way back with the young core leading the charge. Jalen Gaffney finds a cutting Bouknight for two, and then the two combine on the press to force a turnover. Akok swats back-to-back shots, earning a “LET’S F-ING GO!” in his ear from his head coach. Bouknight hits a tough layup to cut the deficit to one. Tulsa takes a timeout and Hurley explodes, skipping onto the court in sheer elation.
A Wilson and-one gives UConn its tenth straight point and the lead, 42-41. Hurley screams into the deafening crowd. Haith, his jacket now gone, can only shake his head and grin at Hurley’s antics.
With three minutes remaining, UConn leads by three. Akok has absolutely taken over, scoring seven straight points for the Huskies and tallying as many blocks. Hurley daps him up on the sideline, but knows it’s far from over. When Vital bricks another ambitious 3-pointer moments later, Hurley tosses his crumpled papers over his shoulder in exasperation.
Fast forward to eight seconds remaining, and the Hurricane have a three-point lead. Hurley takes his final timeout, gathering his team to draw up one final play. He continues calling out directions after the huddle breaks, but after that, Hurley, like the 10,509 in the stands, can only watch.
Gaffney drives baseline, seconds ticking away. Exactly as Hurley drew it up, Gaffney slings it to an open Vital in the corner. His shot is blocked, but a whistle is blown. If he can make all three free throws, it’s a tie game.
The XL Center goes dead silent. Vital makes the first, then the second. Haith calls a timeout, hoping to ice Vital. After another brief chat with his team, Hurley can barely watch. The senior calmly steps to the line and drills it. Tulsa’s halfcourt heave comes up short, and Hurley can momentarily exhale.
But unfortunately, the maddening puzzle of this season — UConn’s inability to close out games — remains unsolved. Tulsa jumps out a commanding seven-point lead after a questionable call on Akok, leaving Hurley bewildered. Bouknight answers with a clutch 3 with 1:23 remaining, but another phantom call sends Tulsa to the line and Hurley to the brink of insanity.
When the final buzzer sounds, Tulsa exiting with a 79-75 victory and UConn with yet another crushing loss, a defeated Hurley embraces Haith and makes his way down the handshake line. He stares blankly at the floor as he walks off the court, probably only vaguely hearing the supportive cheers from the few remaining fans.
Hurley’s guys can battle, there’s no doubt about that. What they can’t do, so far at least, is win big games. He knows it, but also knows that these devastating losses will one day fuel euphoric wins.
“The freshmen are growing through the pain we’re going through right now. It’s hard to grow without pain,” Hurley said after the game. “The older players, they’re helping to change the program. It’s not showing up in wins and losses — and this has been a brutal-ass period … We’re going to turn these brutal losses into big-time seasons. It’s coming soon.”