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It's been a draining few days as UConn men prepare for Temple

Storrs — It's been an emotionally draining few days for the UConn basketball team.

Their recent crushing losses seem so insignificant after the Huskies learned Sunday of the tragic passing of NBA great Kobe Bryant along with his daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter accident in California.

Freshman Jalen Gaffney is still struggling with the shocking news.

"Kobe is actually my favorite player of all-time," Gaffney said after Tuesday's practice. "I think he's the greatest player of all-time. That hit me hard after the game (Sunday), especially after the loss. The first thing I see is Kobe dying. That hurt a lot to me. I still feel it today even a couple days later.

"We want to appreciate him, but we also have a lot of work to do ourselves. Our main focus right now is to just go out and win the game."

UConn (10-9, 1-5) will try to snap a four-game losing streak on Wednesday when it hosts another struggling team in Temple (10-9, 2-5) in American Athletic Conference action at Gampel Pavilion (7 p.m., ESPNews).

The Owls have dropped six of their last seven games.

"They're playing three or four starters that were on a team that went to the NCAA tournament," coach Dan Hurley said. "So, they've got some older guys that have experienced more success than we have. But we're both coming into the game in desperation mode at 10-9 and obviously not in a good place in the conference."

Basketball hasn't been the only thing on the minds of Hurley and Temple first-year coach Aaron McKie.

Hurley sent a video to his players that detailed Bryant's evolution as a player, starting at the age of 17. He added that it's been hard on the coaches and players because Bryant meant so much to them.

Bryant's death also put things in proper perspective.

"We all need (perspective) in our lives just because basketball is such a central part of our lives, it's so personal to me and to a number of these players," Hurley said. "It means so much to you that you lose perspective a lot, especially when you're struggling and losing. We all get so down and so negative when things aren't going well, especially the way it's gone for us these four games. So that was certainly a reality check.

"I gave my wife Andrea a longer hug and I made sure I got on the phone with my son Danny in college. I spend a lot more time around my son Andrew that night as opposed to going and locking myself in the basement and being miserable about another brutal loss."

A former Temple player and long-time Philadelphia area resident, McKie has close ties with Bryant, who attended high school in Pennsylvania. They played on the Los Angeles Lakers together from 2005-07. Their relationship dates back further than that.

"I knew him very well," McKie said by phone on Tuesday. "I met him when he was in middle school. He spent a lot of time on the Temple campus playing basketball."

McKie spoke to his team about Bryant's unmatched work ethic and preparation.

"It was difficult initially because he's a hero to those guys," McKie said. "It hurts. Everybody is hurting on a global scale."

Both Temple and UConn will be playing for the first time since Bryant's passing.

Gaffney described his team locker room's mood as being "a little down with all that's been happening with the losses that we've had and Kobe passing."

UConn made program history on Sunday by becoming the first Husky team to lose four straight by six points or less.

"I think the last couple of places that I coached at, we had historic seasons. Not that way," Hurley said. "I've never been through it as a player or a coach. Just where a group fights so hard and competes. ... This group of guys keeps putting themselves in position to win. You just hope we get rewarded soon."

Hurley is trying to keep his team's energy and confidence level up in the face of so many painful defeats.

He plans to play the players that give the Huskies the best chance to win.

"You're an older player or younger player right now, we need you to play a certain way. We're a group trying to build something here. We're trying to do the best that we can to win. Obviously, we're starving to win, we're dying to win.

"But we're also trying to play in a way where we can build something, where we've got a culture and an identity."

g.keefe@theday.com

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