UConn’s first March Madness game in five years didn’t go quite how the team and its fans hoped. The No. 7 seeded Huskies lost to the No. 10 seeded Maryland Terrapins 63-54, marking UConn’s first loss in the Round of 64 since 2012 and only its second loss ever in that round.
The Terrapins (17-13) were simply the better team at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette on Saturday night. They shot 9-for-18 from 3-point range and over 51% overall.
“Big credit to Maryland,” UConn head coach Dan Hurley said after the game. “I thought those guys, in particular offensively, played a great first 28 to 30 mintutes. Shot the cover off it. I think they showed their experience, their quality.”
The Huskies (15-8) meanwhile had a really difficult time scoring the basketball. The first half was potentially one of the ugliest halves of basketball that UConn played all year. The team shot 9-for-39 (23.1%) from the field and had more rebounds (28) than points (22). They couldn’t hit any shot whether it came from three feet away or 30 feet.
“When you get 18 offensive rebounds in the first half and you miss that amount of layups at the rim, I think it had a demoralizing effect on us,” Hurley said.
The second half was better, and UConn made it interesting, cutting the lead down to five with three minutes left. But UConn still finished by shooting just 32% with more offensive rebounds (22) than field goals made (21). Senior Isaiah Whaley, who finished what could have been his final game with six points, seven rebounds and two blocks, said it was frustrating to dominate the way the Huskies did on the glass and not see the results on the scoreboard.
“It’s really frustrating when you get a lot of offensive rebounds and not really a lot of points from it, so that was really frustrating,” Whaley said. “But I’m proud of my team for being tough and keep offensive rebounding though.”
Sophomore James Bouknight struggled for the second game in a row in what was probably his last game at UConn as well. He led the Huskies with 15 points, but he shot just 6-for-16 and he missed a few crucial free throws toward the end that could have extended the game.
“James is a sophomore player, which is still a young player in college basketball,” Hurley said. “This was a big spot … Those guys for the most part who were guarding him today were physical juniors and seniors, and I think he was a little bit indecisive at times tonight.”
Bouknight is a potential lottery pick in this year’s NBA Draft and will almost definitely not return to UConn next year. But Hurley made sure to note how important he has been to rebuilding the program.
The story of the game though was the discrepancy in shooting. Maryland let UConn get back in it late, but overall it was a terrific performance from the Terrapins. Junior guard Eric Ayala led the way with 23 points on 8-for-14 shooting, and he caused a real matchup problem for UConn.
“We were scared about what he was going to be able to do against us,” Hurley said. “We knew he was going to be a problem, and he was exactly what we thought he was going to be.”
Maryland’s other junior guard Aaron Wiggins also had a big night with 14 points, and he knocked down four 3-pointers. UConn didn’t have anybody to match Maryland’s shooters. R.J. Cole hit a few threes and Jalen Gaffney made some big plays late to keep UConn in it, but it wasn’t enough.
Despite the tough loss to end it, Hurley and Whaley both see this season as a positive overall, with the program getting back to national relevance after a few dark years.
“I view it as a big step, especially for the program,” Whaley said. “I’m proud of everybody for sticking to it. We went through a lot this year, especially with the COVID pauses, and everybody was going through stuff individually. But we stuck through it and we kept fighting. I see this as a big step for the program and it’s only up from here.”
Now, it’s time to take the next step.
“Obviously the next hill that you must climb when you’re the head coach at UConn is to consistently be at the top of your league, consistently be in this tournament and have your team advancing in this tournament,” Hurley said. “We’re not there yet.”
The climb continues, but this season was an important one for getting UConn basketball back where it belongs.