Inconsistent Huskies show up, fall in AAC tournament opener

Orlando, Fla. — UConn played its same tired game of Bad Huskies/Good Huskies on Thursday.

The former outweighed the latter.

The outcome was as predictable as UConn's lack of intensity at the start was stunning.

A rocky, inconsistent season came to a crashing halt with an 80-73 loss to injury-depleted SMU in American Athletic Conference tournament first round game at the Amway Center. The Huskies had reached at least the semifinals in all of their previous AAC tournament appearances.

They finished 14-18, giving them consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1985-86 and 1986-87.

Remember the Huskies' vow prior to leaving Storrs to possess do-or-die tournament intensity?

Never happened until they trailed by 19 points, 42-23, at intermission.

By then, it was too late.

"The game started off kind of like our whole season a little bit, getting down and then playing from behind," coach Kevin Ollie said. "Once again, our guys didn't give in, didn't stop fighting. We got back in the game.

"But when you get down by 20 ... everything's got to be perfect and unfortunately today wasn't perfect and we couldn't get over the hump."

The eighth-seeded Huskies narrowed a 21-point gap to just four twice inside the final minute but the No. 9 Mustangs (17-15) converted seven of their last eight free throws to hold on and advance to Friday's quarterfinal against top-seeded Cincinnati.

So why didn't they play with a sense of urgency?

That's been a troubling trend the whole season.

"It's not really acceptable," junior Jalen Adams said, "especially with so much being on the line. Our team knew if we didn't win this tournament then the season is over. We should have come out with more energy and played a lot harder from that start."

Vital finished with a team-high 22 points while graduate guard Antwoine Anderson had his best performance as a Husky, chipping in 19 points, 13 in the last five minutes. Adams, who came in averaging 24.5 points in the previous five games, cooled off considerably, scoring a season-low six points to go with six rebounds, five assists and five turnovers. He combined with Terry Larrier to shoot 8-for-28 from the field.

Adams played with a taped left thumb that he injured in the regular season finale but didn't use that as an excuse.

UConn never led, watching the SMU, which had seven healthy scholarship players, zoom out to a double digit edge (25-13) with a 12-2 run. The Mustangs chased down rebounds and loose balls, turning those hustle plays into baskets. They made seven of their 10 3-pointers overall before intermission.

"We didn't play with any energy," Anderson said.

In the second half, the Huskies were a different, far more energized team. They went into attack mode, cranking up their defensive pressure and fast break. Redshirt freshman forward Mamadou Diarra (eight points, eight rebounds) scored off a rebound to cut the gap to 44-35.

"Everybody just woke up," Adams said. "We knew we were better than how we were playing."

The Mustangs responded with an 11-0 spurt, helped by four straight UConn turnovers, to build a 21-point edge.

One last super-charged run, led by Anderson, carried the Huskies to within four, 75-71 with 31.7 seconds remaining. But the Mustangs finished off the win from the foul line, with senior Ben Emelogu (23 points, eight rebounds) sinking five in the last 37 seconds. Perimeter weapon Jahmal McMurray and inside force Akoy Agau had 19 and a career-best 21 points, respectively.

The Huskies scored 50 points in the second half, their highest output for 20 minutes this season. They also shot 46.7 percent, won the rebounding battle (37-29) but fell short in the heart and hustle departments

The Mustangs just played like they wanted it more.

g.keefe@theday.com

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