Disaster at The Dunk

PROVIDENCE – Once upon a time, Connecticut would deploy its basketball players on enemy territory in the Big East Conference, play with extraordinary poise, and walk off the floor to the sounds of silence. There are few things coach Jim Calhoun enjoys more than quieting a crowd on the road. UConn players from the past embraced the idea as well.

ANALYSIS

The same cannot be said for the 2011-12 edition of the Huskies. UConn (17-12, 7-10 Big East) concluded its Big East schedule Tuesday night with a 72-70 defeat of disaster at the Dunkin' Donuts Center.

The final conference road record: 3-6. That includes the week with the Jersey devil and consecutive losses to Seton Hall and Rutgers. It includes the offensive struggle at Georgetown when the Huskies managed just 44 points. In Louisville, the Huskies gave up in the second half and quit. In Syracuse, the better team dominated the final six minutes.

And now we have this ugly chapter for the history book.

The Huskies, needing a victory or two to solidify their chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, created a new brand of frustration for their followers against a Friars team that won just its fourth Big East game of the season.

This one defied belief.

UConn led 51-37 after the first 27 minutes and 30 seconds, only to yield 35 points in the final 12 minutes and 30 seconds. Providence (15-15, 4-13) missed its first seven shots after halftime, but finished with seven three-pointers in the second half. The Friars outrebounded UConn 41-37 over 40 minutes. And even though the Huskies finished with only seven turnovers, five of them came at key junctures in the second half.

"All hell broke loose," UConn guard Shabazz Napier said.

And now there may be hell to pay.

With Pittsburgh coming to Gampel Pavilion on Saturday and the Big East tournament starting Tuesday in New York City, the Huskies are running out of opportunities to increase their victory total and to convince the NCAA selection committee that they belong in the field. A loss to Pitt would leave UConn 7-11 in the Big East – and 23-31 in the conference the past three seasons. In six seasons from 2003 to 2008, UConn lost only 30 conference games.

Andre Drummond led UConn with 14 points and 12 rebounds but he scored all but two of those points in the first half. He dunked on the first basket of the second half to give the Huskies a 34-30 lead but Drummond didn't score in the final 18:52. He did get whistled for a technical foul during a 26-5 run that gave the Friars control.

And that's where the Huskies lost their poise.

"This is one of them games where you've got to look at yourself in the mirror and realize you're not that good," Napier said. "Right now you're just an average kid trying to get out of the hole."

Not exactly a confidence invoking statement from the team's point guard.

Bryce Cotton led the Friars with 22 points and LaDontae Henton added 18. They each had five three-pointers as Providence finished 10-for-21 from beyond the arc.

"I felt we were in complete control of the game," said associate head coach George Blaney, now 3-5 during Calhoun's medical leave of absence. "They went to specialty plays with Cotton and we let him free three straight times. And he hit all three threes. We came down on two separate occasions and took quick threes ourselves. That let them back in the game and that got the crowd in the game. It was a ballgame from there."

Niels Giffey, who scored four points in 16 minutes, rushed a deep three-pointer in transition. He was open but his teammates were not in position to rebound the miss. That led to a run-out three by Cotton that cut the lead to 52-44.

Another three by Cotton made it 54-47 and the Providence crowd, which loves to hate the Huskies in this old rivalry, started turning up the decibels. Giffey made a bad pass that Vincent Council stole and drove to the rim for a layup. Napier got lazy and was stripped from behind by Gerard Coleman, who passed to Council for a jump shot that cut the UConn lead to three.

The crowd got even more pumped when Tyler Olander and Kadeem Batts danced the jump ball tango and the possession arrow favored the Friars. Cotton buried another three and Providence had made it all the way back to 54-54 with 8:18 to play.

"We just didn't come together when it got tough," Lamb said. "I'm not sure [why]. It's very frustrating. Very frustrating. I don't know [why]. We've got to get some confidence and play together."

Lamb missed another opportunity to step up in a leadership role Tuesday night. He was 5-for-15 from the field. Seven of those attempts were from three-point range. What has happened to the running jump shot in the lane? Why doesn't Lamb make those aggressive moves to the rim that helped UConn win the national championship in 2011? Is anybody smoother or more productive with the floater? The fact that Lamb doesn't even try that approach is reflected in his inability to get to the free throw line. In 33 minutes at The Dunk, Lamb didn't go to the line once.

It is hard to comprehend how the Huskies opened the game tossing the ball inside to Drummond for alley oop dunks and easy baskets, only to get away from that early in the second half. Napier blamed himself and said when he stopped running that shut down those easy transition baskets.

It is hard to comprehend how Drummond has the energy to point and wave at his former teammate and future Friar Kris Dunn of New London, after those easy baskets – yet he can't crash the boards for possible second-chance points. Watch Drummond the next time a shot goes up from the perimeter. He either stands flat-footed or starts heading back on defense. The Huskies rarely crash the boards the way Top 25 teams do. A smaller Providence team had 17 offensive rebounds and 16 second-chance points – compared to 11 and 13 for the Huskies.

When was the last time you can remember a UConn player standing his ground to take a charge? It is a discipline of good defense that is overlooked by the Huskies. Fans love the sacrificing of the body and react in a positive manner that players can feed on.

Blaney said the other day that a Calhoun defense is built on the blocked shot. But that doesn't preclude other defensive measures, does it?

It's true the Huskies have had some great shot blockers. Drummond recorded three and the team had 10 against Providence. But who will remember those stats when the Huskies are playing Northeastern in the first round of the NIT?

"We did everything right," Roscoe Smith said. "Like I said, Providence is a good team. They've got a great organization and good players. This is one of those losses that is mind blowing. You do everything you can do, but you still lose. We showed a lot of effort."

Effort? Confidence? The Huskies are repeatedly losing to teams with lesser talent. That should be embarrassing. There should be a sense of urgency.

Why have the results been so negative? Smith took a bite of his candy bar and said, "I don't know. I don't know. I really don't know. . . .We're not desperate at all. We're not shaky. We're still looking good. We've had losses here and there, but we're still confident and our heads are still high."

Losses here and there? Since the start of 2012, UConn is 5-11. Think about those numbers next time you fantasize about the Huskies repeating last season's five-game Miracle on Broadway. If the Big East tournament started today, UConn would be the No. 10 seed and meet Providence again on Tuesday.

That's not exactly what everyone had in mind when the Huskies were ranked No. 4 in the nation at the start of the season.

Napier and Smith were freshmen on the national championship team and part of that 11-game magical ride that produced a trophy and championship rings. Just one year removed from all of that, this not-so-magical stretch of misfortune is difficult to swallow – at least for Napier.

"We have about eight guys who were on that team," Napier said. "Guys know what it takes to win that championship. For us not to be doing what we're supposed to . . . it lies on the defense. There's not enough communication. And when there is communication, it's misunderstood communication.

"I have to do a better job communicating with my teammates. I'm not doing a great job of that. I'm not doing a great job of being a leader."

Words are nice. But it's almost March. Actions to support those words would be more helpful right now. The only problem there is that it already might be too late.


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