UConn’s season came to a close on Saturday night in a 73-61 loss to one-seed Kansas. The Huskies were nearly run off the court in the first half, playing their worst 20 minutes of basketball of the season at the worst possible time. However, in true UConn fashion, they battled back from a 24 point deficit to get back in the game before Kansas exerted their overwhelming talent to secure their spot in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Huskies could not maintain the momentum of their thrilling AAC Tournament run and first round victory against Colorado. Their post players were outplayed in startling fashion. Shonn Miller, in the final game of a brilliant collegiate career, made a lone field goal and did not record a rebound in 31 minutes. Amida Brimah missed 18 minutes of the first half with foul trouble and finished with only four points and two rebounds. Kansas dominated the Huskies on the glass and in the paint on offense.
UConn clawed their way back into the game by limiting the Jayhawks’ outside looks in the second half and getting their guards involved. Sterling Gibbs, also in his final game, scored a team-high 20 points. Rodney Purvis continued his impressive tournament play by scoring 17 of his own.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, the problems that plagued them on offense throughout the year manifested themselves when matched against a tough Kansas defense. Gibbs and Purvis had to work awfully hard to get clean looks while Daniel Hamilton and Jalen Adams struggled to get their shots to fall. As we witnessed in the AAC tournament, the team thrived when the latter two guys were leading the offense.
Additionally, UConn attempted only 11 free throws. The Huskies will likely end the year as the best free throw shooting team in the nation, but their inability to draw fouls and maximize their talent was a problem for most of the season and again on Saturday.
Despite the result of the Kansas game, this season should be viewed as a success. The team took longer to come together than most anticipated, but in the end, they capitalized on their collective talent enough to compete with one of the very best teams in the nation in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what you sign up for at the beginning of the season.
UConn’s roster was riddled with upperclassmen this year, but most of them had never played together, and the returning players were asked to perform significantly different roles than the year before. The Huskies imported Miller and Gibbs to join the starting lineup, creating a roster unlike any other in UConn history. Hamilton ended up as the de facto point guard for much of the year, and Brimah missed significant time to injury at the precise time that the roster should have been coalescing.
Reflecting on these travails helps put the last eight days into perspective.
As a general rule, any season that ends in hardware was a success. UConn won its first AAC conference championship this year — bonus points for the Cash Adams shot. As a program that has become accustomed to winning championships at a frequency unmatched by the rest of the nation, it can be difficult to accept anything less as a success at the end of the year. But the most you can ask for is to get into the Big Dance and hope things break your way. They didn’t this year. But that’s okay.
It’s never easy to fully appreciate the season as a whole immediately following its final loss. But this team represented the university with integrity and left it all out on the floor. As we’ll cover in-depth the next few days, they have also set themselves up for future success — depending on who returns next season.
Two players that won’t be back are Omar Calhoun and Phil Nolan, who played their final games as Huskies after four eventful years. It is impossible to study their statistics and glean their true impact on the program. The duo were recruited to come play for Jim Calhoun, on a team that had won a national championship two years earlier. By the time their freshmen season began, their coach had retired and half the roster had bolted. Calhoun and Nolan stayed. They stayed through the tournament ban. They stayed through injuries and reductions in playing time. They never complained or stopped working.
Calhoun and Nolan played on UConn’s 2014 national championship team. Nolan started every game of that tournament run. While the stats may never reflect the sacrifices they made individually for their team, they will always carry the appreciation of those who followed their careers and own a piece of the banner that hangs in the rafters.