Providence holds off No. 20 UConn in Big East men's opener
Hartford — There will be 19 more of these intense Big East battles in the regular season for the UConn men's basketball team.
The No. 20 Huskies hope to survive and win their share of rock fights.
They fell short on Saturday in their much-anticipated league opener against Providence, failing to overcome a poor shooting performance while playing before the first sellout crowd at the XL Center since Feb. 16, 2020.
They finished with season lows for points and field goal percentage (31.1) in a 57-53 loss.
"Tough loss," coach Dan Hurley said. "Credit Providence. They played better than us. Getting down 16 in a game like this is where we lost the game. ... We fought hard and had a couple shots to tie it, a chance to take the lead, and we just couldn't get that shot.
"First of 20 of these types of games. Very, very tough loss."
R.J. Cole finished with 16 points and eight assists for the Huskies, who trailed for the entire second half. Tyrese Martin, who returned to action after missing four games with a wrist injury, chipped in 15 points while Andre Jackson had eight points and a career-high tying 14 rebounds and Isaiah Whaley added 10 points and seven rebounds.
A.J. Reeves led the Friars with 16 points.
The Huskies (9-3) had a great chance to either win the game or force overtime.
With the raucous crowd roaring, they cut a 16-point second half deficit to just two on Tyler Polley's 3-pointer with one minute, 46 seconds remaining.
Following a Providence miss, Cole couldn't convert a driving layup and then Martin misfired from three.
Al Durham scored on a tough drive to put the Friars (11-1) in front 57-53 with 45 seconds left and they held on for the important road win.
"We had our opportunities to win the game," Cole said. "It was disappointing. The whole league is like this. It's not like we're going to have any cupcake games. These 20 games in the league are going to be hard-fought and going to come down to what it came down to today."
The energetic crowd of 15,564 was into the game from the opening minute but had little to cheer for until late in the second half.
The Huskies sputtered offensively from the start, missing 16 of their first 19 shots and went 9:08 without a field goal in the first half during their longest drought.
After Cole handed UConn a 21-20 lead, Reeves buried two straight 3-pointers to spark an 11-1 run to end the first half and push the Friars ahead for good.
Trailing 31-22, UConn faced its largest halftime deficit of the season.
The Friars quickly extended their lead in the second half as Nate Watson, the best big man in the Big East, scored the first six points. The Huskies limited Watson to 10 points overall.
Hurley called a timeout with UConn trailing 37-22.
The Huskies mounted a couple comeback attempts but each time the Friars responded with timely, clutch baskets. They went 8 for 29 from 3-point range overall.
"Our veteran maturity really showed up today, especially late when the building got really, really loud," PC coach Ed Cooley said.
UConn missed the inside presence of forward Adama Sanogo (abdominal strain) who sat out his fourth straight game.
"We're obviously better when he plays," Hurley said. "But we had enough to win the game if we guard the ball a little bit better. We were soft guarding the ball."
The Huskies got very little from reserves Polley, Jordan Hawkins and Jalen Gaffney who went a combined 1 for 13 from the field and had just four points. PC's reserves, on the other hand, had 20 points, getting 11 from Ed Croswell and nine from Jared Bynum.
The return of Martin gave UConn a nice lift. He suffered from cramps late in the game and played 33 minutes overall.
Martin said that he felt great.
"He just played his butt off out there," Hurley said. "It took him a half to get comfortable."
Providence won for the fourth straight time in the series at the XL Center. The Friars shot 39.7 percent from the field.
UConn opens a two-game road trip at Marquette on Tuesday night.
Cooley believes the Huskies will be just fine moving forward.
"Good win," Cooley said. "I like this Connecticut team. They're going to be right there near the top when it is all said and done. I'm proud of this win, but you can't get too high. We have 19 more wars to go. I'm just happy that we got off to a good start."