UConn men fall to Saint Joseph's
Storrs — UConn waited too long to come to life on Wednesday.
The Huskies paid the price for barely having a pulse until the second half.
The result: an ugly 96-87 loss to Saint Joseph's, a rebuilding team picked to finish near the bottom of the Atlantic 10 Conference, at Gampel Pavilion.
Trailing by as many as 27 points, the Huskies roared back to within three late in the second half. But they couldn't complete the comeback.
They fell behind 14-0 and never led.
"We've obviously got a long way to go...," coach Dan Hurley said. "When your season is just beginning and you're trying to put three years of ugly losing behind you, what an uninspiring and just terrible way to start a game.
"Never coached a team that's been in that position to start a game. Obviously, we've got a lot of work to do and I've got a ton of work to do."
Senior Christian Vital chipped in 26 points and a career-high 16 rebounds and redshirt junior Alterique Gilbert added 22 points. But they shot a combined 10 for 40 from the field.
At the start, UConn (1-1) lacked energy, enthusiasm and the emotion necessary to compete.
The Huskies missed their first nine shots on the way to an icy 34.9 percent from the field overall. Questionable shot selection contributed to their poor shooting. They finished just 8 for 34 inside the three-point arc, 14 of 29 outside of the line. They had only seven assists.
The Hawks (2-1) rode a torrid 3-point shooting attack to a 16-point halftime lead and converted 13 overall from beyond the arc. Red-shirt junior Ryan Daly scored 21 of his game-high 30 points in the first half.
It was a mystifying defensive effort by the Huskies. The Hawks matched the most points scored by an opponent in Gampel Pavilion, tying Villanova's 96 in 1995.
"We had a three day prep for this where the entire point of emphasis was guarding that 3-point line...," Hurley said. "In a place like this with the history this place has, it's hard to explain a defensive performance like that at the start and lack of just dying to win and dying to play great."
For the second straight game, the Huskies looked like they were waiting for their wakeup call.
They played poorly at both ends of the court and quickly fell behind 14-0. Gilbert's driving basket ended the drought at the 15:53 mark.
Daly and Myles Douglas combined to score the first 19 points for the Hawks, who drained eight of their first 11 3-pointers. St. Joe's hit its average of 10 3-pointers per game by halftime.
The deficit grew to 27 (46-19) before a late UConn surge closed the gap a bit. Gilbert's two straight 3-pointers capped an 11-2 run.
By halftime, St. Joe's already had 54 points, just 13 fewer than UConn allowed in the season-opening win over Sacred Heart.
In the second half, UConn's energy level rose. The Huskies started a comeback by increasing the defensive pressure and speeding up the game.
The Huskies closed to within three, 79-76, when Vital made two free throws with 4:41 left.
"We had a tough start to the game, but we came out in the second half with fire," said redshirt freshman Akok Akok, who had 12 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
Akok's breakaway dunk brought UConn to within 82-78. The Hawks (2-1) responded with an 8-0 run to basically seal the win.
The Huskies didn't do the little things, like fighting to secure key rebounds. Their problems run much deeper than a lack of effort.
"That's a culture thing," said Hurley, who picked up a technical foul in the second half. "That's accepting losing and being part of losing for a couple of years and you start wearing that like underwear and it's in your bones."
Play the same way against No. 15 Florida on Sunday in Storrs and the Huskies will be in deep trouble.
"We've got a ranked team coming into our place, we've got to bounce back," Vital said. "We've got to move on. The only thing we can take from this is a learning lesson."
It wasn't all bad news for the Huskies on Wednesday.
They scored a big recruiting victory by receiving a verbal commitment from 6-foot-11 center Javonte Brown-Ferguson, who attends Thornlea Secondary School in Ontario. He picked UConn over Kansas and Texas A&M and reportedly plans to reclassify to the Class of 2020.
"It's close to home and then they are getting a lot of hype right now because they're getting back to the Big East," Brown-Ferguson told 247 Sports about why he selected UConn. "When I went on the visit you can tell the players and coaching staff are really hungry and really passionate. I can tell in a couple of years, maybe this year or next year they are going to go far."
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