Men’s Basketball: Huskies lose heartbreaker in Big East semifinals

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Connecticut’s Isaiah Whaley (5), James Bouknight (2) and Andre Jackson (44) leave the court after the team’s NCAA college basketball game against Creighton in the semifinals in the Big East men’s tournament Friday, March 12, 2021, in New York. Creighton won 59-56. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Throughout the entire season, UConn’s identity has been defense and rebounding. The Huskies are a hard-nosed, tough, defensive team who can stifle even the best players in the country. The offense on the other hand has been inconsistent, and the scoring has been known to dry up for extended stretches. 

Friday night, it did just that at the game’s most crucial juncture. 

“They played great defense,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said. “Obviously if you watched the game it was a defensive struggle, a very intense game. … It was a very intense game. Baskets were at a premium. We hadn’t been in a moment like that, semifinals, Big East Tournament. I think we wanted it so bad that we might have gotten in our own way.” 

Through the final 6:08, UConn didn’t make a field goal. UConn scored six points in that stretch, all from the free-throw line. Creighton scored 11, turning a three-point deficit into a three-point lead and 59-56 win. 

The Huskies won the turnover battle 13 to eight — but scored just six points off of turnovers to the Bluejays’ seven. 

UConn was even more consistent from the free-throw line, going 15-for-19 vs. Creighton’s 8-for-14. When it to field goals though, UConn lagged behind, shooting 33% to Creighton’s 37%, making four-fewer shots.  

The three-point shooting was especially rough, with the Huskies going just 3-for-14 from deep. Creighton wasn’t even significantly better, shooting 5-for-18, but made them when it counted, going 1-for-1 in the final four minutes to UConn’s 0-for-3. Two of those three misses came in UConn’s final possession with a chance to tie the game, the first one a contested shot from James Bouknight and the second a relatively open one from Tyler Polley. 

Still, the game wasn’t lost on that final possession. It was lost by not making a field goal for the final 15% of the game. 

However, not only did UConn’s scoring come to a screeching halt down the stretch, but they got consistently beat in an area the Huskies rarely lose — rebounding. 

Creighton beat UConn on the boards 50 to 33, and the minus-17 rebounding margin was the largest for the Huskies all season by seven. 

Connecticut’s Isaiah Whaley, left, and Adama Sanogo, right, block a shot by Creighton’s Denzel Mahoney during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals in the Big East men’s tournament Friday, March 12, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

“And obviously our calling card the whole year has been our defense and our rebounding and the difference in the game was the 17,” Hurley said. “It was the 17 offensive rebounds we gave up was obviously — that was probably the difference in the game.”  

UConn did get a great game from freshman Adama Sanogo, who had 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting with five rebounds. Unfortunately for the Huskies, he was only on the court for 21 minutes as he dealt with foul trouble for practically the entire game. 

“It hurt not having him in there,” Hurley said. “I need to go back and see the fouls. He was plus-12 when he was in there. He was a real difference-maker. Obviously the guy’s a beast.” 

Sanogo exited the game with 8:47 to go in the first half and didn’t touch the court again until after the break. At that point, he was UConn’s leading scorer with eight, and at the end of the half he was the only Husky with a positive plus-minus, and it was a whopping plus-10 at that. If he was able to play more than 12 minutes in the second half, it might have been a different story. 

As for Bouknight, he didn’t have his best night. The future lottery pick led the team in scoring with 14 points, but he did so on just 4-of-14 shooting including going 0-for-3 from deep. Still, the tip-off of Friday’s game wasn’t even 24 hours after needing to literally be carried to the locker room due to full body cramps. He put in 33 minutes of basketball where he played with his usual effort that at times probably reached the point of recklessness. 

“James doesn’t have to explain his performance to anybody,” Hurley said. “What he’s done for UConn basketball, where this thing was at a couple of years ago — James will make some adjustments and he’ll play great next week.” 

Connecticut’s James Bouknight drives past Creighton’s Antwann Jones during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the semifinals in the Big East men’s tournament Friday, March 12, 2021, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

UConn was also without point guard R.J. Cole for the final 4:30, who had to leave the game after a hard fall that gave him a noticeable cut above his eye. Hurley said he got stitches and is in concussion protocol.  

“R.J. is a leader, the leader, he’s our point guard,” Hurley said. “Obviously it hurt not having him not guard Zegarowski. It hurt not having him down the stretch of that game to try to execute some things. We were a little unsettled without him.” 

This loss obviously stings for the Huskies. You could see it clear as day in their distraught faces after the game. The thing is, unlike the past four seasons, a loss in the conference tournament game isn’t the end of their season. 

UConn, for the first time since the 2015-16 season, is headed to the NCAA Tournament. Where they’ll get seeded is still very much up in the air, but it likely won’t be any higher than five and any lower than nine, and those are the extremes. A safe bet would probably be somewhere in the six to eight range. Sunday, we’ll find out for sure. 

For now, the Huskies have about a week off until the first round, which will take place on March 19 and 20. 

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