Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The UConn men’s basketball team has a lead late in the second half, only to fall apart down the stretch and lose in gut-wrenching fashion.
It was a familiar storyline on Saturday in Memphis, as the Huskies (11-10, 2-6 The American) failed to execute in crunch time once again, falling to Memphis, 70-63, at the FedEx Forum.
UConn led with under five minutes to go in the second half, but a foul-ridden, turnover-plagued final few minutes saw the Tigers (16-5, 5-3 The American) pull away.
“We just didn’t put the ball in the basket enough,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game, as reported by the Courant’s Dom Amore. “Didn’t shoot the ball well enough, didn’t make enough plays to win the last five minutes in an incredibly tough place to play.”
In a game that lived up to expectations as a physical, gritty contest between two young teams desperate to get back on track, the teams combined for 44 turnovers and 43 free throw attempts. As has become the norm, UConn just couldn’t make shots when it mattered most, including missing far too many attempts right at the rim.
“We missed shots that we usually make,” James Bouknight told Amore. “Shots that we need to make in the future.”
Senior Christian Vital was the game’s high scorer with 20 points and three steals, but he was also just 6-of-15 from the field and coughed it up five times. Similarly, Bouknight had 17 points but drained just a third of his shots along with three turnovers. Akok Akok had a particularly frustrating afternoon, shooting just 1-of-7 including a handful of missed dunks and unforced turnovers.
Redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert returned to the team, coming off the bench for the first time this season. Gilbert missed UConn’s previous game against Temple due to undisclosed personal reasons. He was one of the few efficient scorers for UConn on Saturday, scoring 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, and was excellent defensively, snagging three steals.
“It’s always good to get your brother back out there when you’re battling,” Vital said, as reported by Borges. “It was definitely good to get him back.”
It was a game of runs in the first-half, with the teams trading 11-0 runs. UConn clung to a one-point lead at the break, but it easily could’ve been more.
“At halftime, we probably should have been up eight or 10,” Hurley told Dave Borges of the NH Register. “I think Akok probably had three missed dunks alone. A lot of that has to do with not having great finishers, not being real physical and on the flip side, the way [Memphis] protects the rim.”
Despite six first-half turnovers, Memphis freshman Precious Achiuwa, who chose the Tigers over UConn, came alive after halftime, scoring 14 of 16 after the break. Memphis scored its last 11 points at the charity stripe, missing just one free throw in the final four minutes.
The Huskies have now lost seven of their last nine, and five of those have been decided by seven points or fewer. They’ll have a chance at revenge when the Tigers come to Hartford on Feb. 16. But UConn has three games before then, beginning with Tulsa on Thursday — a team the Huskies have never beat on the road.
“We’ve played all the best teams in this conference, and all of them have been close games,” Bouknight said, according to Borges. “I feel we can beat this team. We’re gonna see them again. Next time, we’ve just got to close out the game.”