Crushing Defeat for Huskies

STORRS, Conn. – When the Division I men's basketball committee gathers to pick the field for the 2012 NCAA tournament, it would be extremely interesting to be the proverbial fly on the wall and hear how Connecticut fares in the so-called "eyeball" test.

That's when the committee members throw out all the numbers, all the data, and all the rankings – and judge a team on its visual aesthetics.

At the very least, the Huskies must qualify as confusing in that department. At the extreme, this team has the UConn coaching staff baffled and frustrated.

Exhibit A would be Saturday night's 71-69 loss to No. 2 Syracuse at Gampel Pavilion. No one could have been impressed by the Huskies in the first half, as Syracuse shot 51.4 percent and UConn fell behind 43-29 at halftime.

The second half? Well, that was a different story. The Huskies rallied from a 17-point deficit, tied the game twice in the final five minutes and had a chance to force overtime on the final possession of the game.

But in the end, this was UConn's 11th loss of the season and it dropped the Huskies to 7-9 in the Big East Conference. They are way beyond moral victories. With two regular season games remaining, they have their backs against the wall.

"The message continues to be full possessions and full games," associate head coach George Blaney said. "And for some reason we continue to not be able to do that. If you are down 17 to a team like that and come back and get it even – [you know] you can play. It's not a question of confidence, it's a question of full possessions."

Kris Joseph scored 21 points, Fab Melo had 11 points and nine rebounds, and Dion Waiters scored 10 as Syracuse (29-1, 16-1 Big East) defeated the Huskies (17-11, 7-9) for the second time in two weeks. Syracuse won the outright Big East regular season title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament with the win at Gampel Pavilion.

"They've found a way all year long to make something good happen," said Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who became the first coach in Big East history to record 400 conference victories. "We're not dominating by any stretch of the imagination.

"At times we can be that dominant team, like we were in the first half. But we had to keep scoring because they were scoring. We made four or five great plays at the end of this game."

Jeremy Lamb led UConn with 19 points, Andre Drummond came alive in the second half and finished with 17 points and 14 rebounds, and Ryan Boatright had 14 points and six assists.

But it was Roscoe Smith (11 points) who took a pass inside from Shabazz Napier (seven assists) on the final possession of the game as the Huskies tried to pull off the comeback victory – or at least force overtime. Smith, who had given the Huskies a solution to Syracuse's zone defense throughout the game, drove to within about six feet of the basket and was guarded by C.J. Fair of the Orange.

Video replays clearly indicate Fair fouled Smith. In fact, Smith was practically tackled. He did manage to get a shot off but Fair blocked it with one second left.

"Syracuse kind of pushed their defense out and the middle was open," Smith said. "I made a strong move and I got fouled but I think the officials did a good job. They really can't call a foul in that type of situation. So, you've just got to live with it."

Lamb said Smith definitely got fouled.

"[Fair] purposely grabbed his arm, but [we] didn't get the call," Lamb said.

Official Jim Burr was closest to the play, but this was not a game with a lot of whistles. Syracuse was called for 13 fouls; UConn 10. The Orange finished 10 of 14 from the free throw line and UConn went 9-for-13.

"It's the game of basketball; it's a tough situation for the referee," Smith said. "They probably didn't want the game decided [that way]. I got fouled. Everybody saw it. It will be on [TV highlights] tonight."

In the Syracuse locker room, the story was different, of course.

"It was a good no call, I just tried to make a good play," Fair said. "[Smith] was worried about Fab blocking his shot [but] I was in there and able to sneak up and block it."

The Huskies were 6-for-20 from three-point range but shooting the three for the win was not UConn's first option.

"We were trying to get penetration," Blaney said. "They played it pretty well. It was the play to be made because we got stopped out top. Roscoe caught it and went to the rim. At that time of the game you really want to get to the rim unless you're going to shoot the three."

In reality, UConn lost the game in the first half when Syracuse shot so well and crashed the boards for a 23-13 advantage. The Huskies shouldn't have been dominated that way on a night when UConn fans were celebrating the presence of ESPN's GameDay crew.

That deafening crowd should have given the Huskies the emotional lift they needed from the opening tipoff. But Syracuse scored easy basket after easy basket to take control

"This is a hostile environment," said Joseph, who had 12 first-half points. "It was real big for me to start off hot the way I did. My first look was a three and I made it, and from there my teammates did a great job of finding me."

UConn took that away after halftime. If only they could have done it for 40 minutes, the "eyeball" test might have been more favorable.

"The crowd was anxious for us to do well," Blaney said. "They kept urging us. We certainly didn't do anything to earn their respect in the first half. [Syracuse] just disregarded us and kind of did what they wanted."

And that is something UConn can't afford at this point in the season.

UConnPlaybook.com intern Chris Hathaway contributed to this story.


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