UConn can't overcome another slow start
New York - UConn walked the Big East tightrope once again on Wednesday night.
This time, the Huskies fell.
After two dramatic overtime wins, they stumbled, losing to St. John's, 71-65, at Madison Square Garden. The defeat stopped their winning streak at three.
The game followed a familiar pattern.
They played uninspired basketball in the first half and fell behind by double digits for the second straight game. When they finally recovered, they fought back from a 15-point deficit to take a short-lived two-point lead before fading again.
South Florida couldn't hold off the Huskies on Sunday. But St. John's (15-8, 7-4) did, executing down the stretch and making free throws, sinking 19 of 25 in the second half.
Coach Kevin Ollie had trouble explaining the reason behind the sluggish starts.
"I have no idea," Ollie said. "We're going to keep going to the drawing board. They've just got to play with effort and energy. When we play with effort and energy, you see what happened in the second half.
"That's on me. And I'm going to have to make changes."
Ollie made a change to start the game, sitting leading scorer and team leader Shabazz Napier for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Napier spent the first six plus minutes on the bench and scored 14 points. Junior Niels Giffey played well in his first start this season, finishing with nine points and a career-high 10 rebounds.
The dynamic duo of Napier and sophomore Ryan Boatright, who had a season-low five points, struggled from the start, neither scoring until the second half. Freshman Omar Calhoun, a Brooklyn kid, led the way with a game-high 21 points.
"Omar made some shots and kept us in there in the first half…," Ollie said. "He played aggressive and played hard. I was happy for him, but we need all of our guys to step up and play better defense and be more enthusiastic about the game and have that passion in the first half."
In fact, Calhoun and sophomore DeAndre Daniels, who had 12 points, accounted for all of UConn's points in the first half. The Huskies faced a 31-20 deficit at the break.
UConn trailed by 12 against South Florida before rallying for the win.
"We can't give our opponent a huge lead all the time," Giffey said.
The Huskies (15-6, 5-4) finally came to life after trailing 39-24 with just over 16 minutes remaining. Napier fueled a 12-1 charge, sinking three straight 3-pointers. During the run, both UConn's Enosch Wolf and St. John's Jakarr Sampson (18 points) were whistled for flagrant fouls after a brief physical altercation running down the court.
Giffey's 3-point play forged the game's first tie at 44-all. The unit of Giffey, R.J. Evans, Napier, Wolf and Calhoun provided the energy to spark the comeback.
"They played with effort and played with life," Ollie said. "Those are the guys that I want to coach."
After sitting out for over nine minutes, Boatright finally broke into the scoring column with a game-tying 3-pointer and made two free throws to give UConn its first and only lead at 53-51 with 4:30 left.
But the Red Storm didn't fold. Green took advantage of a defensive breakdown to convert a layup and an open Sampson hit a short jumper to spark a 9-0 run and help stretch the lead to seven.
The Huskies finally ran out of comeback magic.
The main issue right now is on the offensive end. UConn settled for too many 3-pointers, going 10-for-28 and leading to 31 percent shooting overall. The Huskies shot just 30 percent in the 69-64 overtime win over South Florida. Both opponents played zone.
"We got to attack and we've got to get to the rim," Ollie said. "We can't settle for shooting 28 threes."
St. John's emerged with its sixth win in seven games.
"It was wild Big East basketball game and we were fortunate to be able to come out on top with a victory," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said.
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