Men’s Basketball: Huskies falter on biggest stage, get upset thanks to Allen’s 37 points

New Mexico State guard Mario McKinney Jr. (4) shoots against Connecticut guard R.J. Cole (2) during the second half of a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA men’s tournament Thursday, March 17, 2022, in Buffalo, N.Y. Photo by Frank Franklin II/AP

“Teddy [Allen] is a bucket. Teddy is a tough shot maker. Teddy plays with a lot of pop and a lot of personality and intensity. I don’t know if there’s anyone in the Big East that we’ve played against that has that type of release,” said UConn head coach Dan Hurley on Wednesday before the Huskies’ clash with Allen and New Mexico State on Thursday, showing high praise for the junior guard.

Despite the high praise, who would have thought Allen would have had a historic performance as he did? 

Fast forward to just one day later and Hurley’s words couldn’t ring truer, as Allen torched fifth-seeded Connecticut for 37 points en route to a 70-63 upset win in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. His offensive showing in 12th-seeded NM State’s biggest win in decades was the most points ever scored by a single player in the Big Dance at the KeyBank Center.

Allen was everywhere Thursday night, particularly down the final stretch of the game, knocking down big shot after big shot to halt the persistent Huskies team, who overcame a 14-point deficit. He finished the night with 37 on 10-for-24 shooting, six rebounds, three assists and two steals. A perfect 13-for-13 from the free throw line really bolstered his game, as he drew a whopping 13 fouls of UConn’s 17 registered.

“He just happened to make more tough shots than he missed tonight,” said Connecticut guard Tyrese Martin.

As much as this was the “Teddy Buckets” show all night in front of the Buffalo crowd, Thursday’s loss was a very winnable game for the Huskies. UConn was caught off guard early, having only six points to their name by the under-12 timeout, yet somehow still in the lead. Despite a little generated steam from the offense after that, they stopped cold yet again, allowing a 12-2 run from the Aggies before the half. At the break, the Huskies were down by 10.

“I think we came out there and imposed our will. We hit first, we denied everything, that’s not what they’re used to … I think we did a great job of setting the tone in the first half and then going into the locker room, everybody knew that we can’t come out flat, and they’re gonna come out hard, so we just matched that intensity,” said NMSU junior Sir’Jabari Rice.

And give Connecticut some credit, it did come out strong out of the half. After a pair of early threes gave the Aggies a 14-point lead, the Huskies clawed back little by little. They tied the game with just 2:06 in regulation thanks to an Andre Jackson pass through traffic to an open Isaiah Whaley, who laid it up off the glass.

But then, an offensive rebound by Clayton Henry allowed for a second-chance three-pointer from Allen to put the NM State lead back to three. RJ Cole was able to work his magic with a crafty layup, but Allen did more of the same, getting to the line on the other end. With possession, down three, with less than a minute to go, the Huskies turned over the ball, allowing for an Allen fast break layup in which he drew the foul, putting the Aggies up six. Ball game.

“Just getting ourselves down by 10 and then down by 14, we just put ourselves in a horrible spot,” said Hurley.

For as many mistakes as the team made down the stretch, namely through bad fouls on Allen and costly turnovers, this game was lost in the first half. The Huskies came out lifeless in one of their biggest games of the year, plain and simple. A team that ranks eighth in the nation in rebounding margin, UConn allowed NM State to dominate the glass 17-11 in the first. Board-grabbing guard Martin was a non-factor, going 0-for-3 from the field for one rebound, despite being the only player on either team to see the court for all 20 minutes.

In fact, all of UConn’s “Big Three” had very little impact on the game in the first, as the trio of Martin, Cole and Adama Sanogo combined for six points on 3-for-13 shooting at the break. Amid the Aggies’ big run, the Huskies had a swing that was very indicative of their night. Cole missed a wide open three-pointer, and somehow Sanogo got it back. His second-chance opportunity was no good, and NMSU found a wide open Yuat Alok down low for the basket on the other end. It just wasn’t their night.

Particularly, it wasn’t Sanogo’s night. The all-conference forward was disappointing for a third straight outing, the only three postseason games Connecticut would play. Hoping to punish the Aggie bigs down low, Sanogo couldn’t get much going on Thursday, finishing 4-for-9 for 10 points and eight rebounds. He was just off, fumbling a couple balls out of bounds, missing breakaway dunks and reverse layups all night.

Fellow all-Big East member RJ Cole started out in the same fashion but became huge for the Huskies down the stretch. His 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting in the second half really put Connecticut in a position to win this game, as he hit key buckets with the team’s back against the wall.

This marks the second straight year for UConn to be upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, having previously lost to 10th-seeded Maryland in 2021. With all the team has been through this season, losing lottery pick James Bouknight and still improving the program’s relevance, this team felt destined for more. It was a gloomy postgame press conference, and you could see it in the team’s reluctance to even hit the podium. 

“I wish we had an opportunity to coach [the seniors] longer, it’s a special group, it’s a great group, they’ve done so much for UConn these last couple of years. It’s just sad,” said Hurley.

Seniors Cole and Martin took the stage for (likely) the last time as Huskies, and both looked overcome by emotions in the aftermath of their season.

“It was emotional just knowing that that was the last 40 minutes of basketball that we were gonna be able to play with that group together. It was stunning, sad, shocking, a lot of different emotions,” said Martin.

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