The score was 71-70. Tyler Polley got the ball in the corner, faked his defender out and dished a great pass to Tyrese Martin, who went up for a layup and got fouled with 18 seconds left. Martin, who had just hit a huge 3-pointer moments earlier to keep the Huskies in the game, needed to hit both free throws to give UConn the lead or one to tie the game. Instead, he missed both free throws, and the Huskies went on to lose to St. John’s 74-70.
Both of UConn’s (7-2, 4-2 Big East) losses this season have involved missed free throws at the end. Against Creighton on Dec. 20, guard R.J. Cole missed two free throws that could have iced the game, and the Huskies ended up losing in overtime. Against St. John’s (8-7, 3-6 Big East) on Monday, it was Martin who missed in clutch time from the so-called “charity stripe.” After the game, Cole said his message to Martin was just to be ready for the next opportunity.
“Next time, we just got to prepare ourselves before the game and in practice to come up stronger on the next possession, the next free throw,” Cole said. “We have that next opportunity, so we have to continue to keep working.”
It wasn’t just Martin, though. The team as a whole shot just 65% (15-for-23) at the free-throw line, and that percentage was closer to 50% in the last five minutes. It’s tough to win games in the Big East when shooting free throws at that rate. Head coach Dan Hurley said it’s frustrating when the game comes down to free throws, because there’s nothing he can do.
“That’s an individual thing,” Hurley said. “That’s a routine, that’s having the nerves and confidence to step up and make them … As a coach, you’re pretty helpless on that one.”
Sanogo has big day, absent down stretch
Freshman big man Adama Sanogo had the best game of his young career on Monday, scoring a career-high 12 points in just 17 minutes. He also added four rebounds, two assists, a block and a steal. He was a real bright spot for the Huskies when he was on the floor.
“I was ready to play,” Sanogo said after the game. “It feels good to show my team I’m here for them. But we lost, so I feel like it doesn’t matter. Yeah, I played good, but we lost. Just gotta keep working.”
Despite being “probably the only good thing that happened” in the game according to Hurley, Sanogo was notably absent in the final 10 minutes of the game, a move that undoubtedly puzzled UConn fans. However, Hurley said it was because St. John’s played really small with four guards and a wing during that stretch, and there was no way Sanogo could match up with that.
“It was unfortunate that they played so small and they were making threes in the second half,” Hurley said. “So going zone and keeping him in wasn’t an option, and then there was no one for him to guard in man.”
Huskies keep Champagnie in check, beaten badly by others
The best player for the Red Storm, Julian Champagnie, had his worst game of the season. He didn’t score at all in the first 19 minutes, and he didn’t hit a field goal until there was seven minutes remaining in the game. He finished with 12 points, but most of that came at the free-throw line.
The UConn defense did a great job at limiting St. John’s best player, but they weren’t able to do the same on the other Red Storm players. Posh Alexander went off for 18 points, and Marcellus Earlington came up huge off the bench with 15 points.
Hurley said his team was brutal at guarding the ball especially on 3-pointers, letting St. John’s shoot 67% from three in the second half. With no James Bouknight to anchor the offense, Hurley said the team isn’t equipped to win a game if they don’t play great defense.
“We can’t give up 74 points,” Hurley said. “We’ve got to play elite defense, and we got beat to so many loose balls and offensive rebounds there. We’re not winning a game like today that’s played in the 70s with some of the limitations we have offensively.”