From the start, it wasn’t the Huskies’ day on Saturday afternoon when Seton Hall came to Gampel Pavilion for the first matchup between the Big East charter members since February of 2013.
UConn (8-4, 5-4 Big East) was playing catch-up the entire game, never once holding a lead in the 80-73 loss to Seton Hall (11-8, 8-5 Big East). That’s not to say it wasn’t a competitive game because it certainly was. But UConn never had the ball with a chance to take the lead because every time the team made a play on offense to cut the Seton Hall lead to four or five, the Pirates came right back with a big play on offense of their own.
“We didn’t play good enough individual defense,” head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “We scored enough today to win, but we just obviously couldn’t guard them individually.”
The Huskies got off to a really bad start, showing signs of rust from their 11-day layoff. They went down 14-2 really early and got down by as many as 18 points in the first half. That deficit proved to be too much to overcome.
“That [start] was absolutely a byproduct of having not played and being a little bit out of rhythm,” Hurley said. “We were getting great shots … We just couldn’t make anything and [Seton Hall] was making their shots.”
But the Huskies never went away. The closest UConn came to coming all the way back was early in the second half, when it cut the lead to two points. But Seton Hall came right back with five quick points aided by a UConn turnover to bring the lead right back to seven. Hurley called that the most critical moment of the game.
“That turnover vs. the pressure there was a killer in terms of having that lead go back to seven,” Hurley said. “We should have been going into that first media timeout in a two-point game and feeling good about where we were.”
The score was never that close again, as Seton Hall kept between a four and 10-point lead the rest of the way, ultimately coming away with a seven-point victory.
In the loss, Jalen Gaffney had a career day for the Huskies, scoring a career-high 20 points on 5-for-11 shooting from the field and 8-for-9 shooting from the free throw line. He was aggressive and attacked the rim on the offensive side, but like the rest of the team, he did struggle on defense.
“I definitely think it was a breakthrough offensively,” Gaffney said. “I think I played well offensively. I was hitting shots, making my free throws. But I think where I lacked during this game was defensively especially down the stretch. They scored a lot of buckets on us individually. We would go on runs, runs, runs, but we just couldn’t get a stop, and that’s what affected us during the whole game.”
UConn also got great production from two of its freshmen. Adama Sanogo had 12 points, while Andre Jackson scored a career-high seven points and had a big impact on both sides of the floor in his first game back from injury. Jackson also had the highlight play of the game with a ferocious put-back dunk.
“Pregame, coach was just telling me to crash the offensive glass, and that’s basically what I did,” Jackson said about the dunk. “Initially, I was just going to get the rebound, but I saw it was above the rim so I just put it in.”
This was the first game in James Bouknight’s absence where the Huskies’ offense clearly played better than their defense. Despite putting up 73 points, the most since scoring 82 against DePaul on Dec. 30, UConn just couldn’t get the stops it needed to get over the hump.
The biggest issue for the UConn defense was fouls. The Pirates kept finding their way to the free throw line, where they took full advantage, going 27-for-31 (87.1%). That’s over a third of their points coming via the charity stripe. When you give that many opportunities to a really good free throw shooting team, it’s not going to fare well for your side.
“It was a lack of discipline at times,” Hurley said about the fouls. “It was being outsmarted, outfoxed … Some of it was just not being very smart and disciplined, and that’s my fault.”
Big East Player of the Year candidate Sandro Mamukelashvili especially took advantage of UConn’s mistakes on defense. He scored a game-high 22 points with 10 of them coming at the free throw line. Myles Cale also added 20 points. The Pirates shot 50% as a team overall (22-for-44) and from 3-point range (9-for-18). UConn had a good day offensively, but Seton Hall was just on another level.
Hurley said that this was a game where he had conflicting emotions after. There were some real positives, such as the contributions from Jackson and Gaffney, but at the same time, the defense continuously let the Pirates off the hook by fouling or just not grabbing rebounds.
“As disappointing as it was to lose, and as disappointing as it was to get down 18, you obviously feel good about battling back. You feel good about being able to hang in the game with two freshmen in there. It’s a weird feeling,” Hurley said.
The team will look to bounce back when it travels to Providence to play the Friars for the first time this season on Wednesday at 4 p.m.