Ostrout: UConn men's basketball team still plagued by late-game issues

Published on Monday, 10 January 2022 15:50

Journal Inquirer

NEWARK, N.J. - Dan Hurley has a simple plan for getting his team’s season back on track: stop losing.

Sounds simple enough, right?

Well, we’ll do the UConn men’s basketball coach one better with an explanation of how to accomplish that: stop turning the ball over in crunch time

That one, for Hurley and the Huskies, is unfortunately a little bit more complex.

UConn’s issues late in tight games cropped up again Saturday, leading to a 90-87 overtime loss to No. 24 Seton Hall at the Prudential Center.

“We have to stop losing,” Hurley lamented after the loss. “I’m tired of losing. We’re all tired of losing now. We’ve had excruciating losses, four of them. We could have won any of those games. We easily could be sitting as a top-5 team in the country right now if we closed out games a little bit better.”

Yes, UConn is now 10-4, with those four losses coming by a combined 14 points.

Husky fans, who just a few years ago were struggling with the fact that their team was bad, can take solace in the fact that it is now, in fact, quite good.

It’s just not good in tight games - yet.

Let’s not lose the fact that Saturday’s affair was the Huskies’ first game in 18 days following a layoff for COVID. They played great in many aspects. And there is no shame in losing to a good Seton Hall team on the road. Hurley called it “a clash between two teams that have a chance to win this league”

But when the game was seemingly in hand - UConn led by nine early in the second half - or at least in reach - the Huskies had the ball with a chance to win the game near the end of regulation and in overtime - a loss is a difficult pill to swallow.

In the latter effort, UConn was forced to execute without its point guard. Star R.J. Cole fouled out in overtime, leaving the Huskies without their primary, and by far best, ball-handler.

Backup point guard Jalen Gaffney had a rough outing, and the junior has struggled at times this season in key spots. So the Huskies ran the final play through wing Tyrese Martin, who was trying to feed the ball to center Adama Sanogo.

But Seton Hall’s skyscraper of a center, Ike Obiagu, had fronted Sanogo, making the entry pass a touch too risky.

Martin, Hurley mused after the game, should have realized more quickly that forcing the ball into Sanogo wasn’t going to work and instead should have drove into the paint as an alternative.

Martin, though, realized perhaps a second too late and by then was trapped in the corner and coughed up the ball with 1.7 seconds to play.

After a pair of Bryce Aiken free throws, the Huskies actually had one more chance, a desperation 3-point attempt by Sanogo near the buzzer following Tyler Polley’s last-ditch heave down court. But the shot missed its mark, leaving UConn with yet another near miss against a quality opponent.

Changing the outcomes of those efforts will require valuing possession of the ball much more in key moments. At the end of regulation, Cole’s potential game-winning drive to the basket resulted in an air ball and a shot clock violation.

His solution for a fix involves minimizing those plays, as well as tightening up on defense.

“Just trying to eliminate the little things, the turnovers, live-ball turnovers especially,” Cole said. “And then just getting stops on the defensive end, not playing in a track meet of ‘We score, they score.’ ”

The veteran from New Jersey has a point.

UConn hit 14 3-pointers Saturday, one shy of its season-high 15 against Auburn. Its offense was in top form for nearly the entire game. Even a few casual turnovers late wouldn’t have mattered if the Huskies’ lead was substantial enough.

Instead, they couldn’t stop an unlikely Pirate hero. Kadary Richmond, a reserve guard who had only scored in double figures four times this season, exploded in the second half.

Richmond scored a career-high 27 points, including 17 straight for his team in one stretch.

“We were kind of waiting for him to come back down to Earth,” Hurley said. “But he never really did.”

The Huskies can take comfort in the fact that there are few men under the age of 22 on Earth who can handle Sanogo for very long.

Yes, relying on Sanogo will go a long way toward solving the Huskies’ late-game issues. They just have to give him the ball enough so their lead is great enough to withstand any late miscues.

Sanogo has battled abdominal and hamstring injuries of late, but is nearly 100 percent healthy, he says.

“When the big fella’s back, it changes things because of the pressure he puts on the paint,” Hurley said. “We tend to get better threes when Adama is playing because of the attention that he draws.”

Sanogo admitted he played a great deal more on Saturday than the coaching staff told him he might: “I was not supposed to play that much minutes,” Sanogo said sheepishly.

The sky is not falling, UConn fans. Saturday’s defeat was, after all, the team’s first this season when it had all of its players available to compete.

Hurley would argue that because some of his players, Sanogo, Isaiah Whaley, Akok Akok, were on minutes restrictions, the team wasn’t quite at full strength this time either.

“We’re a problem when we’re healthy and fully loaded,” Hurley said.

And, of course, when they stop losing.

Posted in Newington Town Crier, UConn on Monday, 10 January 2022 15:50. Updated: Monday, 10 January 2022 15:52.