Any talk of the UConn men putting some kind of miracle bow on their season proved to be, once again, just talk.
The season was an empty package and it could not be given substance, or even made to look better, in the American Athletic Conference Tournament.
In reality, the Huskies’ season crashed with a signature defeat, a terrible start, an urgent, frantic attempt to come from behind that was far too late and an 80-73 loss to SMU in the first round Thursday at the Amway Center.
SMU — playing without its two best players and having lost eight of its last nine — played with a sense of pride from the beginning, looking to accomplish something. The Huskies earned only the ignominious distinction of being the first in the 12-team league sent home from Orlando.
UConn (14-18) ended its worst season in 30 years, maybe longer, depending on how one defines it.
“It’s on us as players,” said Christian Vital, who scored 22 points. “We just couldn’t get it done.”
And now comes an offseason filled with questions, the first and most significant being whether or not Kevin Ollie remains as coach. Asked if he expected to be back, Ollie, who is signed through 2021, said “yes” but later said he had not been assured of it.
The Huskies fell behind 19 at the half. After briefly cutting it to within nine points, they fell back down 21 with 11:42 to play. Then came one of their patented, late and meaningless flurries as the clock ran down and the life drained from another season. They were within four with 40 seconds to go, but SMU (17-15) made enough free throws to close out the game.
“I’ve got to give [UConn] credit,” said SMU coach Tim Jankovich. “They were fighting until the bitter end. But I also have to feel great about our guys that fought off two big runs. When a team's behind they're going to start pressing and making the game crazy and turning it into a different game, and our guys handled that very well and hit free throws down the stretch, too.”
Ben Emelogu scored 23; Akoy Agau, 20; and Jahmal McMurray, 19 for the Mustangs, who lost leading rebounder Jarrey Foster and top scorer and point guard Shake Milton to midseason injuries.
“Everybody just kind of woke up at halftime,” said Jalen Adams, who was hampered by a thumb injury and went 6-for-11 from the floor, with six points, six rebounds and five assists. “Everybody was asking for the score and the managers told us we’re down 19 points and everybody kind of wakes up, like ‘Damn, it’s do or die right here.’ We know we were better than how we were playing, so we just came out with a lot more energy.”
So sleeping in, so to speak, did the Huskies in. Antwoine Anderson scored 19 points and Terry Larrier had 12 as the Huskies shot 45.8 percent, 53.3 in the second half.
UConn came out cold and got colder as the first half went on. SMU jumped out to a 9-2 lead and then started hitting 3-pointers. Jahmal McMurray, Ben Emelogu, Ethan Chargois, Jimmy Whitt and Elijah Landrum all joined the perimeter party.
On the UConn side, the shooting was futile — even when they moved the ball and found an open shot, the Huskies seemed to air-ball as many as they made.
Landrum’s layup finished a 13-2 run and gave the Mustangs a 25-13 lead with 7:16 left in the half. McMurray’s jumper made it 37-21 with 1:16 to go and Akoy Agau finished the half with an embarrassingly easy layup to give SMU a 42-23 lead, subduing the UConn fans behind the bench. The Huskies were 11-for-29, 0-for-7 on 3s, and their big three scorers — Adams, Vital and Terry Larrier — were a combined 5-for-18.
The Mustangs shot 51.2 percent, including 7-for-13 on 3s in the half.
“This game started off kind of like our whole season a little bit,” Ollie said, “getting down and then playing from behind. So we’ve just got to clean that up with defense and rebounding and we have to be connected with that from the beginning, and SMU took advantage. 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.”
Adams and Larrier made jumpers, and Larrier made a half-court steal and scored to ignite a 12-2 run, cutting SMU’s lead to single digits. But the momentum didn’t last. Emelogu hit a couple of 3s, with a series of Husky turnovers, and McMurray hit another 3 to extend the Mustangs’ lead to 60-39 with 11:40 left.
The Huskies began scoring more fastbreak points, and got some 3s from Vital and Anderson, but could not catch up.
“The biggest thing was just our energy in the first half,” Anderson said. “We didn't play with any energy and we came out slow, and it's just like coach says, it's just hard to come back from 20 points and that's just pretty much it.”
The Huskies, with eight new players after a wave of transfers last spring, won their first four games of the season, including a win over Oregon in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland in November, before point guard Alterique Gilbert re-injured his shoulder. That was the high mark of the season. They finished with six wins over mid-major opponents, and seven against the bottom half of the AAC, their second losing season in a row. UConn has not beaten a ranked team in more than two years.
“C.V. says it's about the players, but it's about the coaching staff, too,” Ollie said. “How can I get these guys to play better and play together? … We don't want to be here. We don't want to be 14-18. And that's unacceptable and we have to get better in every category, and I'm on the top to evaluate myself. How I can get these guys to play better, how can I get my coaching staff to execute better and we're all in this together. So it's going to be a long evaluation for myself, my coaching staff, my team.”
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