So close, yet so far.
That’s been the season story for the University of Connecticut when they’ve played the Creighton Blue Jays. A tough loss against Creighton in Hartford earlier this year, coupled with Wednesday’s road loss, has not been what UConn has looked for ahead of a competitive Big East tournament. With a potential No. 3 seed in the tournament in their grasp, UConn fell just short of that opportunity.
“I knew coming in it would be a tough game to win,” said head coach Dan Hurley. “It’s disappointing that we didn’t play better in the first half.”
The Huskies certainly dug themselves into a difficult situation early in the game with a double-digit deficit early. Creighton was able to take advantage of UConn’s lackluster perimeter defense, especially guard Arthur Kaluma. The freshman played hard to get his team up big with a 15 point first half, including 3-5 shooting from beyond the arch.
“We guarded terribly,” said Hurley. “Kaluma killed us in the first half. He had 15 at the half, so we guarded him really poorly.”
Despite the deficit, UConn kept it interesting. The team showed their identity with a huge 12-3 run to start the second half with plenty of offense coupled with some electric defense that caught the Blue Jays off guard to put them within single digits. A huge contributor to UConn’s second half resurgence was the team’s closer R.J. Cole. The fifth-year guard had 20 points on the game, including 11 in the second-half that pushed UConn into contention for the win.
Even with UConn’s electric resurgence, the team was not able to hold the same defense that stumped Creighton at the beginning of the half. Blue Jays center Ryan Kalkbrenner looked unstoppable as he grabbed easy buckets in the paint. UConn big man Adama Sanogo had a six block night, but Kalkbrenner accumulated a staggering 22 points on 10-14 shooting. The sophomore’s contributions were essential to Creighton’s huge win against the Huskies.
“I thought a lot of it was being on the wrong side of him,” said Hurley on how the Huskies defended the Creighton big man. “Fundamentally, in terms of your technique, if you don’t have great technique against a 7-foot-1 guy, he’s going to bury you.”
While Hurley has heavily talked about sticking to the team’s defensive identity, UConn was not able to do this throughout the night, which ultimately cost them the win. The Huskies will certainly be focusing on their team defense as they head into competition for a Big East Championship and a shot at the NCAA championship in March.
Although there is a wealth of competition that lies ahead, the players seem to be focused on their upcoming matchup against DePaul University, especially considering the festivities that lie with it.
UConn will play its Senior Night matchup at Gampel Pavilion on Saturday in front of a sold out Storrs crowd. With the wealth of senior talent who will say their final farewell at home, it’s bound to be an emotional night for both the fans and the players.
While emotions will run high, Cole stressed how a win is what is ultimately important.
“It’s a basketball game. I just want to go out there and win, honestly. That’s the only thing I think about is winning basketball games, no matter what the night is,” Cole emphasized.
The Huskies last took on the Blue Devils in Chicago in a seven point road win for UConn. That game saw Javan Johnson go for 18 points as he looked to lead DePaul to a huge win.
However, Johnson won’t be ready to suit up for the Blue Devils as the forward struggles with a hand injury. DePaul will instead showcase a player that the Huskies missed out on in their last matchup against the program, Big East leading scorer Javon Freeman-Liberty.
To say that Freeman-Liberty is playing out of his mind over DePaul’s previous 5 matchups may be an understatement. The guard is averaging a whopping 26 points per game over his last five matchups, including a 39 point game against St. John’s University. The senior’s play has resulted in a three game win streak for the program and if the Huskies aren’t able to contain the insane play of Freeman-Liberty, he could definitely spoil the night for UConn fans.
The Blue Devils feature a solid frontcourt, including Nick Ogenda with 1.8 blocks per game. David Jones and Brandon Johnson help DePaul with some solid scoring with 14.7 points and 10.4 points.
With Freeman-Liberty taking up much of the scoring for DePaul, the Huskies must plan around stopping the senior in order to win on Saturday. The Blue Devils have heavily attacked the basket this season, and an elite scorer like Freeman-Liberty puts pressure on UConn’s frontcourt to stop them. The Huskies must also focus on securing defensive rebounds, especially with the Blue Devils having a 32.5% offensive rebounding percentage.
Cole, Isaiah Whaley, Tyler Polley, Tyrese Martin, and Matt Garry are set to be honored on Saturday, and it’s bound to be a game you won’t want to miss. Fans can catch the game on FOX at 5 p.m.