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Providence rolls past struggling UConn men, 70-59

Demoralized and beaten down by its recent woes, UConn walked out of Alumni Hall on Wednesday still in search of answers.

The Huskies had hoped to snap out of their funk against the equally desperate Friars, who had lost three straight, but instead sunk deeper into a ditch after suffering a 70-59 Big East Conference defeat. They've dropped four of their last five.

Their confidence has taken a major hit.

"In a game between two teams that were in desperate need of a win, they played better and they were tougher," coach Dan Hurley said. "They played better than us, coached better than us. Tough loss, obviously. Pretty demoralized group right now and it doesn't get any easier in this new league.

"We better get a lot tougher and we better get back to playing much better defense because with what we can do offensively our margin of error to win any game in this league moving forward is very, very narrow."

The Huskies (8-5, 5-5) are trying to win ugly but lack the offensive firepower and defensive determination to pull it off. They managed to grab a one-point lead at halftime before Providence (10-10, 6-8) seized control and built an 11-point advantage in the second half.

Facing a double-digit deficit for the second straight game, UConn mustered a comeback attempt, going on an 11-3 run to climb to within 58-55 on Tyrese Martin's driving basket with about four minutes left.

But the Friars finished the game and the Huskies with a 12-4 spurt. Providence relied on its star players in David Duke and Nate Watson, who had 17 points apiece, and also received 10 points from A.J. Reeves.

"It's frustrating losing," said redshirt junior R.J. Cole.

Hurley tried to shake things up by making two changes to the starting lineup, replacing Cole and Brendan Adams with Jalen Gaffney and Tyler Polley.

But the Huskies still sputtered, finishing with a season low for points and shooting 40 percent from the field. After scoring a career-high 20 points in Saturday's loss to Seton Hall, Gaffney had just four points while Polley went 2 for 12 from the field and scored five points.

Cole finished with 14 points and six assists but also had five turnovers while Martin chipped in 13 points and nine rebounds before fouling out.

Adama Sanogo was about the only bright spot for the Huskies, as the freshman forward had nine points and career highs in rebounds (eight) and blocks (five). He entered the game with only six blocks all season.

"We feel like there's a guy right there that we know is Big East caliber and could help us get back to playing at the top of the food chain here," Hurley said. "His rim protection today was really, really good."

There were far more lowlights than highlights.

The Huskies lacked the necessary aggression to have a shot to win on the road.

For example, they took a passive approach against Providence's three-quarter court pressure defense and wasted too much time getting into their offense.

And when the Huskies did get open shots against a team that's been struggling defensively this season, they misfired far too often.

That's unlikely to improve a great deal until leading scorer James Bouknight returns. The Huskies are 3-4 since their leading scorer went to the sidelines with an elbow injury.

"There's not a lot of ways for us to go," Hurley said. "I thought Tyler got seven or eight great looks from three and he made one. We got in the paint and we were in position to potentially make plays and we either didn't finish or we couldn't deliver.

"... Right now, a lot of guys are struggling with their confidence. Offensively, Bouknight disguised a lot of our deficiencies at the end of the court. We don't have a lot of places to go with the ball offensively right now that we have a lot of confidence in, so we've got to try to win ugly with our defense."

Bouknight isn't as close to returning as anticipated.

Prior to Saturday's game against Seton Hall, Bouknight pushed hard to try to get the UConn medical staff to clear him to play. But he remained on the sideline. He was considered a game-time decision for Wednesday's game.

But the timetable changed after Bouknight met with his surgeon, who is not affiliated with UConn, on Monday.

"He had discomfort still and the surgeon made a decision to shut him down longer," Hurley said. "UConn doctors or UConn training staff or the team doctor don't have the authority to clear James. It's obviously the surgeon that he chose."

UConn will try to get back on the winning track when it visits Xavier in Cincinnati on Saturday.

g.keefe@theday.com

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