NEW YORK – Learning experiences are few and far between for this Connecticut basketball team. In games against ranked opponents, or games on a big stage like Madison Square Garden, the Huskies can only work hard, play through their limitations and hope for the best.
UConn (6-2) did all of that against No. 25 North Carolina State (5-2) in the Jimmy V Classic Tuesday night but fell short 69-65 before a crowd of 11,840 at the Garden.
"It's not going to be perfect with us," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said after the loss. "Our margin of error is not big. Everybody knows that. We're going to play tough. We're going to continue to fight. At the end of the day, that's all we can do."
Guard Shabazz Napier scored UConn's first 10 points and in the first half, the Huskies trailed only after the first basket and the last basket. Six three-pointers and some terrific work on the offensive boards kept the Huskies in the game even though they weren't expected to match the inside presence of the Wolfpack.
UConn couldn't maintain that effort, however. With forwards Tyler Olander and DeAndre Daniels combining for seven points and four rebounds, all the pressure was put on Napier and Ryan Boatright. The offense went through the two guards every possession and that meant a lot of perimeter passing, settling for jump shots and a few shot clock violations.
And when North Carolina State started rebounding, the Huskies didn't have a response.
"I feel like I was not as aggressive in the second half as in the first half," said Napier, who led UConn with 19 points. "We did not run our plays with the same intensity. I tell the guys everyone is going to be up for the first half. The second half is when you fight yourself to get up.
"For us to not come out the same way as we did in the second half shows we were not ready. We have to work on it and push forward."
North Carolina State has had its own issues. The Wolfpack was the popular pick to win the Atlantic Coast Conference in the preseason. But coach Mark Gottfried's team has questioned itself and dropped in the rankings since a 76-56 loss to Oklahoma State in the Puerto Rico Tip Off and a 79-72 loss at Michigan.
"I think that this was a gutsy win and I thought we really defended better in the second half," Gottfried said. "We had key defensive stops."
C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown each had 16 points for the Pack. Scott Wood had 13 points and was clutch from the free throw line, where he was 4-for-4. But Richard Howell (13 points, 10 rebounds) might have been the biggest factor with an aggressive second half.
"We're a different team when Richard is in the game," Gottfried said. "He played phenomenal. He was third in the ACC in rebounding last year. He's kind of a quiet leader."
The Huskies had their own one-man inspiration and that was big man Enosch Wolf, who played 21 minutes off the bench and contributed 12 points and nine rebounds.
"Ryan [Boatright] got me going right away," said Wolf, who was 6 of 8 from the field. "I made my first shot. He hit me right on the spot and I just made it. When I get in my flow, it doesn't really matter [who we are playing]. My guards put me in a good position and I just scored."
UConn led by as much as 11 in the first half, hitting five three-pointers on the way to a 20-9 lead with 11:38 left before halftime. A three-pointer by Wood gave the Wolfpack a 3-0 lead just 20 seconds into the game. And Brown's jumper just before the buzzer gave North Carolina State its 32-31 lead at the half.
Boatright and Napier each took nine shots in the first half, but with drastically different results. Napier, who scored UConn's first 10 points, was 5-for-9 and had 15 points at halftime. He was 4-for-6 from three-point range. Boatright had four points at halftime on 2-for-9 shooting.
N.C. State is bigger and more physical than the Huskies, but UConn won the battle on the boards 20-17 in the first half. Eleven of those came on the offensive boards as UConn was 11-for-34 from the field. The Huskies held a 13-3 advantage on second-chance points in the first half.
UConn shot 40 percent (6 of 15) from three-point range in the first half, while N.C. State went 3-for-3. The Huskies also had 10 points off seven turnovers by the Wolfpack.
There were eight lead changes and the score was tied nine times. The score was tied at 53-53 when the Wolfpack put together a 6-0 run in just over one minute. Leslie hit two free throws, Howell crashed the boards off a miss and scored and then Leslie followed up off a UConn turnover with a breakaway dunk that made it 59-53.
It's no secret that UConn needs a team effort every time on the floor. When Olander doesn't take a shot, plays 19 minutes and grabs only three rebounds, UConn will rarely find itself in a position to win. Daniels compounded things with four turnovers.
"I told Tyler his time is going to come," Ollie said. "We use the words stay alive. I told Tyler in trying times, you can't stop trying."