It could have been a perfect storyline: Alterique Gilbert, amidst a season of outside criticism, inconsistent play and off-the-court hardships, hits the shot to save UConn against SMU. Gilbert did hit the shot, a 3-pointer to bring the Huskies within two points with a minute to go, the closest they’d been since the first half.
But like all night long, the Mustangs answered, going a perfect 4-for-4 from the line in the final minute to hand UConn a 79-75 defeat on Wednesday night. Like all season long, UConn refused to quit, battling back from a 15-point second half deficit, but just couldn’t complete the comeback in the final minutes.
“There’s no moral victories,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the loss, as reported by the New Haven Register’s Dave Borges. “We’re crushed that we didn’t find a way to get a win that would have really catapulted us in the conference standings, with a postseason opportunity for this team. This would have been a big-time win to get.”
After Gilbert’s shot brought UConn (13-11, 4-7 The American) within a basket, UConn had three chances to tie things up, failing to convert all three. Isaiah Whaley, who again outplayed starter Josh Carlton, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:27 to play. With under a minute remaining, Brendan Adams missed an open 3 to take the lead, and James Bouknight’s runner with 28 seconds remaining didn’t fall.
Although he couldn’t be the hero, Bouknight did the heavy lifting for UConn once again, scoring an efficient 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting. Senior Christian Vital had seven assists against zero turnovers along with 10 points. But ultimately, neither performance was enough, as the typically staunch UConn defense allowed SMU (17-6, 7-4 The American) to shoot 55% from the floor and 53% from deep.
“They pass the eye test for me on what an NCAA team looks like,” Hurley said about SMU, according to Borges. “They’re not necessarily the best team we’ve played, but they’re a pretty good team, hard as heck to guard.”
The loss snaps what had been an inspiring two-game win streak against two of the best teams in the conference in Tulsa and Cincinnati. If it seemed like a corner had been turned, Wednesday’s game brought the Huskies crashing back to the norm of excruciating losses. UConn is now just 1-5 in true road games this season, and ends its AAC stint having never won at SMU.
The Huskies simply couldn’t stop SMU’s Feron Hunt, who set a new career-high in points with 23. Hunt made eight of his nine shots, including a pair of 3s, and was responsible for all four of those clutch free throws in the final minute. Kendric Davis also had a big game for SMU, going 7-of-11 for 19 points.
UConn jumped out to an 11-4 lead to open the game, but the Mustangs quickly caught fire and UConn didn’t extinguish them until late in the second half. Freshman Jalen Gaffney, who finally rediscovered his shot for 13 points (5-for-8, 3-of-5 from deep), hit a 3-pointer to give UConn a 19-18 lead with 10:19 left in the first half. That would be the last time UConn would see the lead.
SMU led by six at the half and never trailed after the break, leading by as many as 15 with 11:34 left in regulation. The Huskies rallied but fell just short once again, the sixth time this season they’ve lost by four points or less. If there’s a silver lining to these devastating losses, it’s that UConn can stay competitive with any team in the conference — if only it could learn how to finish.
“There’s no one in the league we can’t beat — home, away, neutral court in March,” Hurley said, as reported by Borges.
Next up for UConn is a rematch with Memphis after falling prey to the Tigers, 70-63, on Feb. 1. Tip-off is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Sunday at the XL Center.