Lack of Focus Earns UConn an Early Exit

It would be hard to label any shot more important than Gerry McNamara's game-tying three with 5.5 seconds left in regulation. But the run-out layup by Eric Devendorf that made the score 2-0 Syracuse sent a message and set the tone in Thursday's Big East Quarterfinal matchup. The Orange were not interested in rehashing the two convincing defeats UConn handed them during the regular season. It was all aboard the GMac express as the ‘Cuse kept their momentum moving forward.

UConn head coach Jim Calhoun went into this game concerned about his team being flat and after a 10-0 lead by the Orange those fears were realized. The Huskies had everyone wondering if they knew the correct start time for the game was noon. It took UConn nearly seven minutes to score a basket from the field, and they failed to make 17 of their first 19 shots.

There it was again.

That lack of focus we've mentioned before reared its ugly head again in this one. The Huskies were uninspired and flat-footed and looked like they were just going through the motions.

But I kept remembering that "stinker" against the eighth-seeded Seton Hall Pirates back in 1999 in the Big East Quarterfinals. Kevin Freeman pulled the Huskies through, as UConn narrowly escaped the upset and won by one (57-56). That team rolled through the rest of the Big East Tournament and carried the momentum through the NCAA's, eventually claiming UConn's first national championship.

I kept saying if they'd just get through this one….but they didn't.

The fact is during the last month of the season the Huskies have endured some mind-numbing lulls and have been at the receiving end of some alarming runs. It started with the Villanova game in Philadelphia. The Wildcats went on a 22-4 run. But that's a very good Villanova team. After jumping out to a 19-0 lead, UConn also gave up a 25-2 run at home against Notre Dame, a team that barely made the Big East Tournament. At South Florida the Huskies were off to a high-flying 18-0 start, which they later coughed up. Calhoun stated after the game that jumping out to an 18-0 lead was the worst thing that could happen to his team. Timeout. Well, they attempted being down by 10 Thursday and that didn't seem to go well either. So the question is do we start rooting for ties? The Huskies also struggled to shake off a pesky Louisville team at home on senior day.

Some games the co-champs of the Big East regular season were just squeaking by and it caught up with them Thursday afternoon.

Gerry McNamara, who has not performed particularly well against Connecticut during his four-year career, was certainly in control in this one. McNamara exercised patience and shredded the UConn defense with pinpoint passes (10 assists in the first half).

Then with 5.5 seconds left, and the Huskies up three (74-71), the unthinkable happened. The last player any UConn fan wanted to see with the ball in his hands launched a dagger in the face of a guy who knows all about daggers. That's right --McNamara swished a three right in Rashad Anderson's grill to tie the game and send this one to an extra five minutes.

The defense on that sequence was puzzling. Why was McNamara was allowed to catch the ball? Better yet why was he allowed to catch the ball just before halfcourt with his momentum going towards the basket? He dribbled over midcourt and was loosely guarded as he launched an NBA three. The Huskies get an "F" on this defensive effort with the game on the line. You could see the frustration on the sideline, Calhoun's face said it all as he stomped his foot as GMac received the pass. Undoubtedly quite the opposite was discussed in the timeout prior to that play.

Lack of focus again.

All year we've emphasized UConn's strength is on the interior, but it seems the times are toughest when UConn impatiently launches from the perimeter. They did it again in this one against a team's who's 2-3 zone was not a factor in two other meetings this season. Your first sign that today's offense was too perimeter-oriented, Marcus Williams took 17 shots. No offense to Marcus but that's way too many.

For UConn the comeback was a positive. But making a living out of trying to rebound from 10-12-14 down against an NCAA-quality opponent will cut a postseason short.

Once again, Denham Brown was UConn's best player with 20 big points. Brown continues to step up his game and has really been a bright spot for UConn. Despite his overtime heroics, Syracuse prevailed and will continue its trek through the Garden, while UConn will head home to prepare for the NCAA tournament having only played one game in 12 days.

It remains to be seen how this loss will affect UConn's seeding and level of play next week. A one-seed is still the reality, but they won't be the overall number one seed. In all likelihood, Villanova will end up in Washington, D.C. while the Huskies will be shipped out west to Oakland or to Minneapolis.

Here's my silver lining in all of this -- UConn's two Final Four appearances have come out of the West Regional. Maybe going west would help this team sharpen its focus. Only time will tell.

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