Too Much Orange

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – It has been a while since the Connecticut basketball team experienced a week like this one. The Huskies lost by 21 points Monday night at Louisville. They followed that up on Saturday, in front of a Carrier Dome crowd of 33,430, with an 18-point loss to No. 2 Syracuse.

It sounds bad because it was bad. But the Huskies were not a solemn, dejected bunch as they headed home Saturday. The margin of defeat may have been extreme in both games, but the UConn coaches and players say the similarities end there.

"Of course this is a negative because we lost," guard Ryan Boatright said after Syracuse's 85-67 victory over the Huskies. "But I think we can turn this into a positive and understand that the season is not over with if we play well."

The Huskies have lost six of their last seven, an odd sensation for the defending national champions. But all things considered, this was the best effort UConn had put forth since the calendar turned to 2012.

"Connecticut is a very good team," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. "I would not count them out. I think there's still lots of time to go. And I know when we go down there (Feb. 25, 9 p.m., Gampel Pavilion) it will be a difficult game. It's always a difficult game."

UConn associate head coach George Blaney, still filling in for Jim Calhoun, called the loss to Louisville an "embarrassment." His players were accused of quitting in a second-half meltdown that forced many Husky fans to turn off their television sets in despair.

Saturday, the Huskies trailed the deepest - and perhaps most talented – team in the nation by only two points with six minutes, 26 seconds remaining. UConn had played with energy, had good ball movement against Syracuse's vaunted zone defense, and freshman center Andre Drummond was finally attacking the rim like a future NBA star.

Then, in a span of 90 seconds, Syracuse's Scoop Jardine struck with consecutive three-point baskets. The Orange led by eight points and never needed to look back again. UConn (15-9, 5-7 Big East) went into an offensive drought that lasted six minutes and five seconds without a field goal and Syracuse (25-1, 12-1) put the finishing touches on an impressive victory.

"I thought the 10 minutes at Louisville was a real step backwards," Blaney said. "I was really, really upset about it. I know anybody connected to Connecticut was upset about it because we had played pretty well up to that point. And certainly in the Seton Hall [victory] we had addressed not giving in and not allowing things to do that.

"Tonight, Syracuse is just real good. You can't have a couple minutes of lapse. Jardine was played four or five times when he hit some really tough shots. I think Dion Waiters is averaging 24 minutes and you could argue he's the best player in the league."

There's certainly no argument that the Orange is the best team in the Big East. Jardine and Co. proved that again Saturday with their tenacious zone defense and a balanced scoring attack that makes them almost impossible to defend at the other end.

Jardine's 21 points were a season high and came on 8 of 9 shooting overall, 4-for-4 from three point range. He also had six assists in 30 minutes. Jardine was the most productive three-pointer shooter but Kris Joseph (15 points) went 3-for-4. Waiters got even more minutes against the Huskies, playing 30, hitting 7 of 10 shots and finishing with 18 points and four assists.

"They were hot," UConn guard Jeremy Lamb said. "They were knocking down shots."

If that isn't enough, Boeheim also brought sophomore forward C.J. Fair off the bench for 38 minutes to score 14 points and grab 12 rebounds – 11 of them on the defensive glass.

Syracuse hit 10 of 16 three-points shots, had 18 assists on 32 baskets, and committed only nine turnovers. Boeheim's biggest concern after an overtime victory over Georgetown had been rebounding. The Orange won that battle Saturday 31-29.

"We can't play much better offensively," Boeheim said. "Offensively, that's the best we've played all year."

Said Blaney: "It's as good a team as I've seen Jimmy have. It's certainly the deepest. Whether or not it's going to prove to be his best team, the rest of the season will tell you that. . . . When they get in trouble, they can isolate so many different people that can just beat you. We really had trouble guarding Fair. He's a bad matchup for a lot of teams."

Lamb continued to struggle from three-point range, hitting just 2 of 10. But he led UConn with 18 points. Boatright added 14 and Drummond had 13. Point guard Shabazz Napier was praised by Blaney for his leadership role after finishing with 11 points, seven assists and one turnover.

UConn trailed 43-34 at the half and Drummond had been held to five points and three rebounds. But he came out at the start of the second half determined to do damaged inside. The Huskies got the ball to him, he dunked, made free throws and scored eight points in the first five minutes after halftime.

After Lamb hit a three to pull UConn within 52-47, Drummond rolled his ankle with 14:19 left and went limping off the floor. After blocking a shot, Drummond went after the loose ball but saw Napier had already grabbed the ball. He turned to get out of the way and the ankle went the wrong direction.

"It's a little sore," said Drummond, who was limping as he left the UConn locker room. "But I'm not going to stress. I'm just going to get back to school and take care of it. I was just getting it going. We could have had this game. It's frustrating because we had the momentum going."

Drummond returned to the game with 9:30 left and UConn trailing 61-52. He didn't score again, but Napier, Lamb and Tyler Olander (7 points) led the spurt that pulled UConn with 63-61 with 6:26 left. That's when Jardine took control and Syracuse demonstrated why it is the No. 2 team in the country.

Now UConn must focus on two straight home games – against DePaul and Marquette. It's imperative to turn things around now. And then the Huskies will get their second chance against the Orange on Feb. 25.

"We're going to see them again," Boatright said. "We'll definitely see them again."

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