UConn men's basketball team's second-half comeback falls short, lose to Xavier at Gampel

Photo of David Borges

STORRS — Xavier ruined the UConn men's basketball team's New Year's Eve and perfect season a few weeks ago.

On Wednesday night, the Musketeers ruined a furious UConn comeback bid as well as the Huskies' 17-game winning streak at Gampel Pavilion, as UConn's season continues to go from perfect to near-calamitous. 

No. 13 Xavier completely dominated the first half, opening up a 17-point lead behind hot shooting and surprisingly strong defense, then held off UConn's spirited, second-half comeback bid for an 82-79 win before an amped-up sellout.

"Really disappointing loss," coach Dan Hurley said in what's becoming an all-too common refrain after six losses in the Huskies' last eight games. "We became unhinged with that offensive start. First five minutes, just did some things that we really didn't want to do offensively. I think that had a real negative effect on our defense. Just a really, really tough loss for us to absorb."

No. 19 UConn (16-6, 5-6 Big East) misfired on its first nine shots of the game, five of them 3-pointers, seven of them out of the hand of Andre Jackson. Xavier (17-4, 9-1) baited Jackson, a 31-percent shooter from 3-point land, to shoot from the perimeter.

"And he took the bait," Hurley said.

But it wasn't just Jackson, as UConn shot 1-for-13 from 3 in the first half and 10-for-31 overall. It wasn't any better on the other end of the floor, where Xavier shot 50-percent from the floor and ultimately forced Hurley to go to zone defense for nearly the entire second half.

"If we had stayed man," Hurley said, "they may have shot 70 percent."

"We can't start like that in any game, especially against a team like that," sophomore Jordan Hawkins said.

The Huskies trailed by 16 less than four minutes into the latter half, but led by Hawkins' hot hand, rallied to get within one (57-56) following a pair of Hawkins free throws with 10:59 left.

Xavier got its lead back up to 10, thwarting UConn's early comeback bids with big 3-pointers, mostly from guard Souley Boum (21 points, 5-for-7 3-pointers). At one point, UConn missed four straight free throws, setting back its comeback bid even more.

Eventually, the Huskies, spurred by an effective full-court press and a healthy dose of zone defense, got to within a point three more times.

With 2:39 left, Hawkins converted an and-1 to get the Huskies with 78-77. Jack Nunge hit a baseline jumper to put Xavier up three with 1:28 left. UConn had a couple of looks -- including one that Hawkins hit, but not before Hurley had called timeout with 20.2 ticks left, negating what would have brought the Huskies to within one again.

"The possession was going not great," Hurley explained. "What we wanted to run, there were a couple of players who didn't get to the right spots. It didn't look like it was going to end the way it ended. I even called it sooner than Tony (Chiazza) probably gave it to me."

UConn didn't score again until Tristen Newton hit a pair of free throws with 2.1 seconds left. Of course, he was trying to miss the second one to allow Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan to have a chance for an offensive rebound and putback. That kind of night (and month) for UConn.

Boum was fouled with 1.8 seconds left and hit both free throws. Jackson hit Donovan Clingan with a long inbounds pass near midcourt and Clingan quickly dumped off to Newton, whose desperation heave at the buzzer was well off the mark.

"You can't put yourself in a 17-point hole versus quality like that and expect to dig yourself out like we did, and even surge ahead," Hurley said.

Hawkins scored 26 of his game-high 28 points in the latter half before fouling out, and Newton added 23. 

After Jackson started 0-for-7, Hurley replaced him with Naheim Alleyne, and Alleyne quickly knocked down 3-pointer in transition.

It wound up being not only the Huskies' only fast-break points in the first half, but their only 3-pointer, as well. And this against a Xavier team known far more for its offense than defense. The Musketeers' entered the game second-to-last in the Big East in defensive points per game, but baffled the Huskies by slacking off Jackson and and packing it in the paint.

Six straight Newton points over the final 3:11 of the half gave UConn a little life, but Xavier owned a commanding 39-24 lead at the break, and there were audible boos from the sellout crowd as the Huskies headed to the locker room.

"The huddles in the first half were looks of disbelief, that we could play that poorly in this building," Hurley said. "The second-half team, I think we might have won every four-minute war in the second half, or close to that. That second-half team is the team I love to coach. It's a team with fighting spirit and the guts to make big shots and make big plays all over the court."

It's also a team that has gone from No. 2 in the nation when it faced Xavier in Cincinnati on New Year's Eve to, in all likelihood, out of the AP Top 25 poll come Monday.

Rim rattlings

• New Haven's Desmond Claude scored six points and had four rebounds and three assists in 20 minutes off the bench Wednesday night, and coach Sean Miller thought he was one of the Musketeers' best players.

Claude had some big splash plays, none bigger than a powerful, two-handed dunk in traffic to give Xavier a 32-18 lead in the first half. More symbolically, Claude grabbed loose-ball rebounds on Xavier's next two possessions despite being surrounded by four and three UConn players, respectively.

"He certainly respects UConn, like we all do," Miller said of Claude, a Putnam Science Academy product. "I don't know if he was that much more ready, as much as he's improved. As a freshman, a lot of times around this time of the year, because they've practiced and played in all these arenas, all these styles of play, at some point they're no longer freshmen. And I really look at Desmond like that right now. He's more confident, he made some big plays tonight."

• It looked like UConn was playing UCLA last night, and not only because the Huskies made Nunge, Boum & Co. look like an amalgam of Lew Alcindor and Bill Walton. Xavier sported its yellow-gold throwback uniforms as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer nationwide initiative, honoring the life and memory of Jaxen Kettler, according to Cincinnati Enquirer reporter Adam Baum. Jaxen is the son of Xavier's head strength and conditioning coach Andy Kettler and his wife, Kimbraly.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com @DaveBorges