Heading into Sunday’s game, redshirt-junior R.J. Cole was a perfect 4-for-4 from the charity stripe. Through the first 39 minutes and 48 seconds of the game against Creighton, he added another six makes on six attempts. Winning by two, with 11 seconds left in regulation, Cole found himself standing at the line once again with a chance to ice the game. He missed both free throws, Creighton managed to tie the game with 0.2 seconds left to push it to overtime, and after another five minutes of game time, the Bluejays found themselves up 76-74 when the final buzzer rang.
These things happen in basketball, people miss free throws, and if these misses came at any other point in the game, they would be all but forgotten. There are plenty of other things to point to for why UConn lost this game. UConn missed five other free throws besides Cole’s two, and their horrific shooting display from three (7-for-30) clearly wasn’t helping.
“Obviously a lot of things led to a very, very tough loss to swallow,” Hurley said. “Should have been able to take care of that in regulation. We didn’t get to some 50/50 balls, we didn’t get key defensive rebounds, excluding the free throws at the end of regulation. There were a handful of just winning type of plays that we didn’t make that led to a really, really tough loss.”
The unfortunate difference for Cole though is those didn’t happen with a chance to ice the game. There were a lot of things UConn could have done better to make those final two free throw attempts not mean as much as they did — but that’s just not what happened. Cole had a chance to win the game, but he didn’t get it done. So you move on to the next one.
“He’s 10-for-10 from the line at that point on the season, he’s 6-for-6 in the game, right now I think he’s our best chance at a secondary scorer, somebody that could potentially be a guy that could get us 13, 14 a game, that could support James on the perimeter,” Hurley said. “He hasn’t played in a while, he obviously had the sit-out year, he’s had the COVID season too, so he hasn’t had a lot of games to play to get himself in some type of a rhythm. We’re gonna get behind him and we’re gonna support him.”
Still, if not for the efforts of James Bouknight, UConn would have lost to Creighton by double-digits. The game would have been over going into halftime. Instead, UConn was in a position where they could have, nay should have, won the game.
Bouknight outscored the entire rest of UConn, setting a career-high with 40 points on 13-of-24 shooting from the field, 5-of-12 from three and 9-of-12 from the line. It was the first 40 point game for UConn since Amid Brimah on Dec. 14, 2014, and the second-most points in a Big East debut since Steve Novak did so in 2006 when he scored 41 against UConn. It’s almost like Bouknight was built for the Big East.
“We’ve got to get him 20 shots a game nightly,” Hurley said. “And we’ve got to find a second scorer.”
That secondary scorer was just something that UConn couldn’t find, with everyone not named James Bouknight scoring just 34 points on 11-of-43 (about 26%) shooting from the field including 2-of-18 from three.
One of the guys UConn really needed a big game from was senior Isaiah Whaley, but his Creighton counterpart Christian Bishop just got the better of him. Whaley finished the game with seven points on a perfect 3-of-3 shooting, but he only grabbed three rebounds and fouled out in the final minute of regulation.
“That one hurt. Not even getting 19 minutes out of Isaiah today, that hurt,” Hurley said. “He’s a guy that’s a double-figure scorer, double-figure rebound guy and potential First-Team All-Defense in the conference. He committed a really bad foul to start the second half which really hurt, and then because he had the fouls, he wasn’t as aggressive with Bishop on a couple of those critical plays where Bishop got the position and scored on him. Isaiah, we need him on the court more like 32 minutes, and it was just one of those games where he just wasn’t as good as we need him to be.”
Bishop led Creighton in scoring with 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting, followed by Mitch Ballock with 13 on 4-of-7 shooting and Marcus Zegarowski in 4-of-14 shooting, including 1-of-8 from three. Denzel Mahoney added 10 points of his own on 4-of-11 shooting, and Damien Jefferson also had 10 on 4-of-9 shooting, including the last second floater to send the game to overtime.
Hurley liked how the team handled Zegarowski, Mahoney and Ballock, keeping them relatively contained, and said the gameplan was to force the forwards, Bishop and Jefferson, to beat them — which they did.
“Although Jefferson made the leaner at the end of regulation, I think where we lost the game was allowing Bishop during that one stretch to really get going,” Hurley said.
UConn got another really solid game from Tyrese Martin, and while he only scored two points on 1-of-6 shooting, he led the team in boards, grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds in his 35 minutes on the court, four of which were offensive. He even had the highest plus/minus of plus-five, one ahead of Bouknight.
Martin though, like the rest of the team besides Bouknight, really struggled to put the ball through the hoop. Despite the team’s struggles Sunday though, Bouknight still has the utmost confidence in his teammates going forward.
“I’m pretty sure next game there’s going to be a lot of help, a lot of attention on me, but this is where other guys step up,” Bouknight said. “I’m sure R.J. can step up and play even better. Isaiah was in foul trouble in the first half and that led to him not having one of his better games. Tyrese is just gonna keep on getting better. And then we’re gonna bring along Dre [Andre Jackson], we’re gonna bring along Adama [Sanogo], and then once we figure it all out, I feel like we’re a team that can really make a run in the tournament.”
It’s the little things. It’s finishing the layup after making a really nice play catching the pass in traffic and getting a defender to bite with a pump fake like Sanogo nearly pulled off. It’s not letting your man get behind you for a wide-open bucket like Josh Carlton did. It’s hitting your free throws.
Once the Huskies clean it up, this team can make some noise.