Thursday night proved to be a sight UConn fans have become all too accustomed to witnessing. Some have likely grown numb to the overtime losses.
It took 50 minutes for the UConn men to fall to the Temple Owls at the Liacouras Center, a 93-89 defeat that needed not one, but two overtimes to determine the outcome. It was the third such game the Huskies (14-12, 5-8 The American) have played in this season, five overtime games overall. They’ve won once in overtime, never more than one.
“We didn’t play well enough, nor did we have enough to be where we want to be,” head coach Dan Hurley told the Hartford Courant’s Dom Amore. “But from a heart standpoint? Those guys have been awesome.”
UConn has now lost 9 games by 7 points or less, including 7 by 4 or less.
— Neill Ostrout (@NeillOstrout) February 21, 2020
Excruciating. Heartbreaking. Gut-wrenching. Brutal. There are few other words to describe the way Hurley’s Huskies have lost games this year. The double-overtime loss to Xavier was the start. Then the loss to Indiana at Madison Square Garden. The double-overtime loss to the Shockers, the four-point loss to Houston, the overtime loss to Tulsa and then last night’s loss all fall in the same category. Then there are the injuries to Tyler Polley and Akok Akok, escalating things from excruciating to devastating.
“It’s a brutal league,” Hurley told the Journal Inquirer’s Neill Ostrout. “Teams don’t like to lose in this league.”
With Akok sidelined for the remainder of the season, all eyes shifted focus onto his replacement in the starting lineup. Isaiah Whaley, a junior who Hurley declared as someone who needed to “step out of the shadows” at the beginning of the season, is doing just that. In his first start since his freshman year, Whaley posted career-highs with 18 points and 14 rebounds, with more than a few coming in big-time moments.
With 38 seconds to play in regulation, Whaley brought his team within a point on a lay-up. Thirty-three seconds later and after Quinten Rose missed a pair from the line for Temple, it was Whaley’s floater that tied the game at 69 apiece to force overtime.
“I wanted to bring some of that same energy that [Akok] brings,” Whaley told Amore. “That same joy and passion that he brings on the court.”
UConn went down four quickly in the first overtime period, but a James Bouknight 3-pointer tied it up at 73 with 3:16 on the clock. Bouknight, who scored 16 points in 41 minutes, collaborated with Jalen Gaffney for a quick five-point burst to put the Huskies ahead by three and 28 ticks on the clock. If it wasn’t for a Monty Scott, who tied the game on a made trey in traffic, that would’ve been enough.
Whaley put the Huskies up four early in the second overtime on consecutive makes, but Temple steadied itself from the free-throw line and hit five in a row to reclaim the lead. Down five with just nine seconds of hope, Christian Vital nailed a straight-away three-pointer to keep the Huskies alive, if only for a brief moment. Alani Moore put the final nails in the coffin with a pair of free throws and UConn couldn’t do much of anything with a five-second last possession.
“It was super tough,” Whaley told Amore. “We’ve got only eight guys and go to double OT. I’m just happy with the way everybody fought the whole game.”
Vital scored 12 of his 21 points in succession in the first half, then Josh Carlton scored six in a row as the Huskies built a 10-point lead early. Then the Owls (14-12, 6-8 The American) swung things in their favor as they pieced together an 18-2 run with contributions from Monty Scott, De’Vondre Perry, Nate Pierre-Louis and J.P. Moorman. A 23-8 run overall, UConn went into the locker room trailing 36-33.
Thanks to early foul trouble, Carlton didn’t score anymore and only played 14 minutes as Hurley opted for a four-guard look to surround Whaley. Pierre-Louis finished with 23 points and 14 rebounds and Scott scored a game-high 25 off the bench. UConn’s three-man bench was outscored 34-16 as the team shot 39 percent from the floor and made 7-of-24 attempts from deep.
It was Whaley who turned the tide in the Huskies’ favor in the second half when he converted an and-1 opportunity at the 16:05 mark to bring his team within two points. Then, Brendan Adams made his biggest contribution of the event, a corner three, to give UConn its first lead since the 5:45 mark in the first half.
Bouknight scored a quick five in a row on a pair of Jalen Gaffney dimes (12 points, nine assists) and things were knotted up once again, this time at 55. Bookended by a pair of Gaffney lay-ups, the Owls scored seven to take an eight-point lead. Whaley would make the free throw to cap a three-point play with 2:29 remaining to set up the wild finish to regulation.
“Coach Hurley is going to push us, he’s going to make us fight through these games,” Bouknight said to Amore. “Even though they’re tough, we’re going to keep competing, keep fighting until we get it right.”
The Huskies have five games remaining in the regular season, with the next coming at home on Sunday against USF. The program will celebrate Big Red Day and maybe a win. Home has been kind to a UConn team that is just 1-7 on the road this season.