No one doubted that there would be days like these for the UConn men's basketball team, given its composition, days when the Huskies would be pushed around, give up crucial baskets down the stretch and lose on the road in the Big East.
But, of course, that doesn't make days like these easier to take. The Huskies played a dismal first half on Saturday, and although they fought back to tie the game, they ultimately left Petersen Events Center with a stinging 69-61 loss to Pittsburgh.
"It was a 12 o'clock game; I guess a lot of guys were still sleep-walking," said Shabazz Napier, who played most of the game despite an injured left shoulder. "It was good that we came back. We kept our composure, but a lot of times when you come back from 13, 14 points, you use all that energy to come back. Then once you're even, you can't sustain that energy."
That more or less encapsulates a frustrating afternoon for the Huskies (12-5, 2-3 in the Big East). They shot 7 of 24 in the first half, were badly out-muscled inside and trailed, 35-22. Pittsburgh extended its lead to 14, at 47-33, on Lamar Patterson's three-point goal with 14:03 to play.
Then UConn started hitting its opponent, and hitting shots. Ryan Boatright, who scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half, was able to penetrate effectively and, when he couldn't get a shot off, was able to find Omar Calhoun open on the perimeter. Boatright scored, drew a foul and completed the three-point play to make it 55-50, then Napier hit a three-point shot and, finally, Niels Giffey made a midcourt steal and scored to tie the game at 55 with 4:38 to go. Boatright's three-point play tied it again at 58 with 4:09 left.
"In the second half," coach Kevin Ollie said, "our guys came out and responded the right way. But when we needed a stop, we couldn't get it at the end."
Once UConn tied the game, Pitt earned open looks with the pick-and-roll, which has hurt the Huskies in other games this season. In some cases, it was bad communication, in others it was missed assignments. The Panthers outscored UConn 11-3 down the stretch.
"Our pick-and-roll defense has got to get better," Ollie said. "Everybody's going to run the pick-and-roll; it has been around for years. If we don't defend that with five guys on the court, we're going to be in trouble."
Surprisingly, it was Pitt's first Big East win at home this season.
"We're not known for losing here," said Tray Woodall, who scored 13 points. Patterson scored 14 and James Robinson 12. The Panthers (15-4, 3-3) outscored UConn 16 to 10 in the paint, and outrebounded them 38 to 27, including 23 to 15 in the first half.
"We didn't come out with any intensity, the whole squad," Boatright said. "They came out and jumped on us and they hit us in the mouth."
The wake-up call did not come until halftime, apparently, when Ollie and the staff challenged the Huskies to hit first. The Huskies made 15 of 26 shots in the second half. Tyler Olander and Giffey, who each had six rebounds, led a somewhat better rebounding effort.
"We moved the basketball and we played tough," Ollie said. "It didn't come down to any X's and O's. I didn't draw up anything. The coaching staff didn't come up with any magic formula. It was just being tough."
Although Napier played 34 minutes and scored eight, his left shoulder injury made it difficult for him to dribble with his left hand. He was limited to perimeter shooting. Boatright missed his first six from the floor, and UConn shot its 7 of 24 in the first half, including 2 of 11 from three-point range. The Panthers, meanwhile, hit 15 of 31 shots, earning a lot of easy buckets, and had nine different players score. The Huskies "fought with more tenacity" in the second half, said Calhoun, who scored 14, but they lost their second game in a row for only the first time this season.
"You have to play 40 minutes, and I thought we played 20," Ollie said. "Can't do that in the Big East. … We're not a talented enough group in the sense that we can go out and try to win as individuals; we have to do things as a collective group, do the little things and sacrifice our bodies. We didn't do that in the first half and it was embarrassing."