UConn men go down fighting in home loss to UCF
Hartford — The harsh reality of the state of the UConn basketball program sinks in more each game.
Especially when playing against opponents like Central Florida, the preseason favorite to win the American Athletic Conference.
The Huskies just have too many flaws to beat quality teams, losing 65-53 despite putting forth terrific energy and effort on Saturday before 10,541 fans at the XL Center. They've lost a season-high three straight games to fall to 9-6 and start the conference season at 0-2 for the third straight season. The Knights (12-2, 2-0) won their sixth straight.
"From an effort standpoint, I'm not sure we could have played much harder," UConn coach Dan Hurley said. "The reality of it is that offensively and defensively as a team we're still pretty far away from where we need to be here.
"... At least from an effort standpoint, it was representative of what UConn should look like, or a team that should look like that cares. That was just about moving this thing forward and just trying to get better now that we don't have to coach effort."
Hurley challenged his players after an embarrassing performance in the second half of Wednesday's loss at South Florida. He said the Huskies had a hard time looking each other in the eyes the last few days.
The Huskies responded.
They played hard and hustled right until the end, with players diving on the floor for a loose ball inside the final minute.
"In that locker room (today), we could look at each other and not be ashamed how we represented the university and the program," Hurley said. "We've just got to get better. We've got a lot of improving to do in terms of how good we are."
They did so many things right but enough wrong, especially in the second half, to lose the game. They dominated the boards, holding a 37-23 edge and allowing zero offensive rebounds. But they scored just six second-chance points off of 17 offensive rebounds, partly due to the presence of intimidating 7-foot-6 center Tacko Fall.
"They've got a giant in the middle in the paint, so that was tough for us," redshirt sophomore Alterique Gilbert said.
They had 24 more shots but wilted under the pressure against what Hurley described as one of the best defensive teams in the country, finishing with season lows for field goal percentage (32.2) and points. Only Gilbert (18 points) and junior Christian Vital (15) hit double figures for the Huskies. For the third time in five games, senior Jalen Adams failed to reach double digits, finishing with eight points on 2-for-10 shooting.
They forced UCF into 16 turnovers but had 18 of their own. Many of those miscues were from poor decision making.
"The undoing just continues to be trying to drive gaps irresponsibly," Hurley said. "Just the amount of turnovers continue to kill us."
And their second half woes continue.
With the score knotted at 40-all after Vital's 3-pointer, the Huskies faded badly in the final 14 and a half minutes. They turned the ball over on five of the next six possessions and went six minutes, 18 seconds without a field goal. They converted just 8 of 33 from the field in the second half.
The Knights never trailed after Collin Smith's 3-point play put them on top, 43-30. Michigan transfer Aubrey Dawkins helped the Knights pull away, scoring 16 of his game high 23 points after intermission.
The Huskies kept fighting to the finish but the damage had been done. They led 7-0 but trailed most of the game, including 33-30 at halftime.
"Our effort was good," Gilbert said. "We played together as a team. We played with energy and effort. Now there's another level where we have to play smarter. We can't make the same mistakes that we continue to make."
But it will take more than all-out effort to lift UConn to AAC contender status, or even respectability. The Huskies are in the early stages of a rebuilding job under Hurley, who's in his first season.
"We're just not at the point as a program where we do a lot of things right, because it takes time to build habits of doing things the right way," Hurley said. "There's no magic dust that you sprinkle on a team and all of a sudden they're disciplined all aspects of the game."
The UCF program is trending in an upward direction. It was the Knights' first win ever at UConn.
"It was a heck of a game," UCF coach Johnny Dawkins said. "Both teams played their hearts out. Defense for both teams was amazing. We're fortunate to come out with a win."
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