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    Sunday, June 23, 2024

    UConn’s rousing comeback falls short in 82-79 loss to Xavier

    Xavier's Colby Jones (3) and UConn's Adama Sanogo (21) reach for a rebound in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Tristen Newton (2) misses a shot from the 3 point range in the final second of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. Xavier won 82-79. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Jordan Hawkins reacts in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Xavier, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    UConn's Tristen Newton drives past Xavier's Adam Kunkel, left, and Souley Boum, right, in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    Xavier's Jerome Hunter (2) reacts in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against UConn, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
    Xavier's Jack Nunge (24) is guarded by UConn's Andre Jackson Jr. (44) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023, in Storrs, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

    Storrs – Facing a season-high 17-point deficit, UConn staged a rousing comeback on Wednesday in a fiercely competitive Big East game between two nationally-ranked teams.

    The No. 19 Huskies never led but cut the deficit to one four times in the final 11 minutes.

    Ultimately, they couldn’t overcome a slow start and fell short, dropping an 82-79 decision to No. 13 Xavier, the Big East leader.

    “Just a really, really tough loss for us to absorb,” coach Dan Hurley said. “You can’t put yourself in a 17-point hole against quality like that and expect to be able to dig yourself out like we did but then even surge ahead.”

    Once again, the Huskies (16-6, 5-6) showed they’re good enough to compete with but not regularly beat the best Big East teams. Since rejoining the league in 2020, they’re 3-15 against the top four teams in the standings, including 1-4 this season.

    They saw their 17-game unbeaten streak at Gampel Pavilion come to a brutal end.

    Sophomore Jordan Hawkins led UConn, scoring 26 of his game-high 28 points in the second half. Senior Tristen Newton chipped in 23 points, tying his best in a Husky uniform, and junior Adama Sanogo had 11 points and nine rebounds.

    But the rest of the team accounted for just 17 points.

    For the second straight meeting and second straight loss in the series, UConn failed to slow down the league’s top offensive team that came in averaging 85.2 points in Big East action.

    Xavier (17-4, 9-1), led by guards Souley Boum (21 points) and Colby Jones (20), converted 53.4 percent from the field and made the big plays down the stretch to hold on for a big road win. The Musketeers have won 13 of their last 14 games.

    “For us to come in and withstand the run of UConn in the second half and the crowd, it speaks to the good team that we have, and we do have a good team,” Xavier coach Sean Miller said. “I looked at it as our best overall win of the year.”

    Backed by a rowdy sold-out crowd, UConn fought back after trailing by double digits.

    The Huskies clawed to within 57-56 with 11 minutes left before the Musketeers answered with a 10-0 run.

    UConn charged back again, as junior Andre Jackson’s fast break jam off a turnover narrowed the gap to 73-72.

    After falling behind by four, Hawkins got fouled while sinking a driving basket and hit the free throw to bring UConn to within 78-77 with 2:39 left.

    But the Huskies made too many mistakes from there.

    Still down one, Hawkins committed an offensive foul.

    Then after Jack Nunge’s inside basket pushed Xavier’s lead to 80-77 at the 1:26 mark, Newton turned the ball over.

    UConn’s defense forced a shot clock violation.

    Hurley called timeout with 20 seconds left, just before Hawkins buried a jumper, wiping out the basket.

    “The possession wasn’t going great,” Hurley said. “What we wanted to run, there were a couple of players that didn’t get to the right spots. It didn’t look like it was going to end the way it ended.”

    Newton’s two free throws made the deficit 80-79 with 2.1 seconds left. He tried to miss the second one.

    “I don’t think anybody has ever worked on trying to miss a free throw,” Newton said. “I tried to hit the back rim so they could get the tip-in.”

    Boum converted two free throws to extend the lead to three.

    Newton badly misfired on a long, off-balanced 3-point attempt at the buzzer to end any hopes.

    Beaten so badly playing man-to-man defense, Hurley went to mainly zone in the second half.

    “If we would have stayed in man, they might have shot 70 percent,” Hurley said.

    Xavier temporarily sucked the life out of the crowd by seizing a 39-24 lead at the break. It was UConn’s largest halftime deficit of the season.

    The Huskies came out shooting blanks, missing their first nine shots. Left open, Jackson, who came in hitting 35 percent in league play, kept firing away and started out 0 for 7.

    Four minutes into the game, Hurley called a timeout trailing 9-0.

    “We became unhinged with that offensive start,” Hurley said. “The first five minutes, we just did some things that we really didn’t want to do offensively and that had a really negative effect on our defense.

    “Defensively, we were so soft. … We couldn’t guard their guards in the first half. They were just getting to the rim and getting anywhere they wanted to on the court.”

    With Nahiem Alleyne replacing the struggling Jackson, the Huskies started to fight back. His 3-pointer cut the gap to 12-7. It was a rare basket from a reserve, as their bench produced just six points on the night.

    But the high-powered Musketeers pulled away again, handing UConn its biggest deficit of the season at 35-18.

    The Huskies stayed cold, converting just 6 of their first 25 field goal attempts and went 10 for 31 in the first half.

    “That’s unexplainable,” Hawkins said. “We just can’t start like that in any game, especially against a team like that.”

    Coming out of the locker room, they finally came to life after halftime and poured in 55 points. Hawkins heated up to fuel the comeback attempt.

    “As a team, we knew we had to pick it up,” Hawkins said. “So, everybody picked it up. Everybody played a part in the comeback. I was proud of the team.”

    But too much damage had been done.

    UConn plays three of its next four games on the road, starting Tuesday at DePaul. The Huskies have lost six of their last eight games.

    g.keefe@theday.com

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