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- American basketball player-coach
For most of his nine-minute postgame remarks, Dan Hurley, somewhat out of character, put a happy face on UConn’s loss. The Huskies hadn’t played in two weeks, only had a handful of practices coming out of health and safety protocols, some players really had only one.
And the Huskies were on the road, yet they played it nip and tuck with one of the best teams in the Big East and the country, up eight in the first half, up nine for a brief time in the second half, and took it to overtime. The word “excruciating” slipped in there, and that was Hurley’s word for the upstart days of 2019-20, not planned for this season.
But just before he could leave the room, the sunshine was fading and grim realism took hold.
“We’ve got to stop losing,” Hurley said. “I’m tired of losing, we are all tired of losing here. We’ve had excruciating losses, four of them, We could have won any of those games, and we could easily be sitting in the top five of the country right now if we closed out games a little bit better, or found a way to win these.”
This is a common lament, but as that other Jersey guy, Bill Parcells, said long ago, a team is what its record says it is. Right now, the Huskies’ record says 10-4, 1-2 in the league. They are no longer in the top 25 and have ground to make up after the 90-87 loss to Seton Hall at the Prudential Center on Saturday.
The two-week layoff due to COVID-19 was beyond their control, and rust would be an inevitable consequence. Fatigue down the stretch would be, too. However, rust and fatigue aren’t columns in the conference standings nor tangible tournament metrics. This was an great opportunity against a “Quadrant One” opponent, vital for a postseason resume. It felt like a postseason game, a Sweet 16 game, Hurley said, and he might have considered it his finest win since coming to UConn.
And it got away, as did the Big East opener against Providence before a packed XL Center; the nonconference test at West Virginia; and the second game in the Bahamas against Michigan State, where a win could have put the Huskies on the floor against top-ranked Baylor, instead of Virginia Commonwealth in a consolation game. Four losses by a total of 14 points.
They’ve had some impressive, gritty wins, too, over Auburn in the Battle 4 Atlantis and at Marquette, but there are only so many opportunities like these to a season, and UConn’s near misses are adding up.
As Hurley walked down the hallway to the locker room, greeting old friends on his old stomping ground, he expanded on that.
“The games were all different,” he said. “Today was probably a little bit of fatigue, having not played in couple of weeks. Sometimes its not getting the big stop. Sometimes it’s not playing good situational basketball, like coming an over-the-back in the Bahamas to begin the cascade of giving that game away. It’s all different types of scenarios.”
This was all true two years ago, Hurley’s second season, when the Huskies lost close game after close game until finally figuring out how to win them in February. They won enough of them last year to make the NCAA Tournament, the most important win at Seton Hall in this building.
It’s 2022 now and the rebuilding is done, but the process of learning how to win is something a program has to go through every year, with different players, different circumstances, opponents, in this case an unforgiving conference. The Huskies are no doubt struggling with it.
“Every game has presented different things for us,” said R.J. Cole, who scored 15 points before fouling out. “But our late game [execution], the losses we have had late in games, hasn’t been good. We’ve been in those games, but we haven’t been able to finish. We have to keep trying to get better at that and it will bode well for us.”
There was plenty for Hurley and his team to feel good about here. Adama Sanogo, who wasn’t expected to play more than 15 or 20 minutes, played 32, with 18 points, 16 rebounds, three blocks, another monster game against Seton Hall, who recruited him heavily out of their back yard before Hurley and Kimani Young won him over.
The Huskies shot extremely well, to complement Sanogo’s post presence, going 14-for-28 on threes, with seven different players making them.
But then there were all the turnovers, 19 in the game, most in the second half, several in critical possessions down the stretch, and the defensive lapses. Kadary Richmond, 10-for-13, went off for 27 points, far above his numbers coming in.
“You lose games like this when guys like [Tray] Jackson comes in averaging (7.4 points) and scores 10 in the first half,” Hurley said, “and Kadary comes in averaging (8.4) and scores 27 and plays great.”
The Pirates (11-3, 2-2 in the Big East) are ranked 24th and on the rise right now. The Huskies, who next play Wednesday night against St. John’s at home, have ample time to show how good they can be. “We’re a formidable team when we’re healthy and in rhythm,” Hurley said.
But their first task is to prove all over again, especially to themselves, that they can win games like this., which would begin to set their record straight.
“My teams, we show up a certain way,” Hurley said, “I think we’re very well prepared and we play incredibly hard. I would rather have a chance to win every game I play in and have the losses be excruciating, then maybe lose one close game and then lose three by 18.”
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org