College basketball may be a 40 minute affair, but for all intents and purposes it a was four minute stretch early in the second half that determined the outcome of UConn’s 76-64 home loss to Louisville at a packed, raucous Gampel Pavilion on the Storrs campus Saturday night. The Huskies (14-4, 2-3 AAC) battled back from a six point half time deficit , scoring the first six points of the second half to knot the score at 34, before the Cardinals hit UConn with an 11-0 run over the next four minutes that left Kevin Ollie’s squad reeling.
And that was before the fireworks.
Following the Louisville run, Shabazz Napier (30 pts) tried to get the Huskies back in the game, getting to the line twice and cutting the Cardinals lead to seven, 45-38, with plenty of time on the clock. A layup by Wayne Blackshear (9pts, 4rbs) pushed the lead back out to nine before Niels Giffey (7 pts, 4rbs), standing in front on the UConn bench, lined up for a three and drew what was an obvious shooting foul to everyone in Gampel except for the one guy with the whistle. Instead of a trip to the line, Giffey was awarded with a turnover as ball went out of bounds. Ollie exploded off the bench, charging the court and immediately getting hit with a pair technical’s before being escorted to the locker room by Kevin Freeman.
Said Ollie on the play and ensuing ejection, “In that situation, I lost my composure. And I told my guys that. In the heat of the moment, you can't lose your composure. And I did that. We're going to move on from it, and we're going to get back to playing good basketball....I just thought it was a foul.”
The sequence was the final blow with Louisville scoring the next seven points of the game and taking their biggest lead of sixteen with just over eleven to go. UConn would cut the lead to seven twice in the final minutes but just didn’t have enough in the tank or on the floor to mount a serious comeback.
One step forward…
UConn, stymied all game by the bigger, physically superior Cardinals, struggled to get anything going inside which in turn allowed Louisville (16-3, 5-1 AAC) to extend their perimeter defense, effectively shutting down any offensive flow. UConn’s frontcourt, which had shown signs of life over prior three games, was virtually non-existent up against the 18th ranked (AP) defending national champs. Louisville pounded UConn on the glass, winning the battle of the boards by fifteen (45-30), pulling down sixteen offensive rebounds, which led to fifteen second chance points and directly contributed to the Cardinals 20 point edge on points in the paint.
Ollie was clearly disappointed with the front court play saying, “It came down to them out-rebounding us by 15. We've been doing a good job the last three games getting those timely rebounds, getting those 50-50 balls and getting those touches. We didn't do that tonight. That was the ballgame. When you play against good teams like this, we're going to have to rebound. And we didn't.” Adding, “We've got to take care of our paint. That's 40 points in the paint. That's just way, way too many. It's not like they have Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar out there”
The stage was set
The minutes leading up to opening tip had the feel of a big time basketball contest. Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale and the ESPN crew called Storrs home for their Saturday Gameday broadcast and feature game. The crowd noise and pregame enthusiasm was phenomenal, with the opening four minutes of the game indicating an epic AAC clash was brewing with two ties and four lead changes in the early going.
After the teams jockeyed for advantage early on it was Louisville that landed the first blow taking an eight point lead, 21-13, midway through the first. UConn countered with a 7-0 run to pull back within one, three minutes later. Louisville ended the first outscoring UConn by five to take a six point lead into the break, 34-28.
UConn hosts the Temple Owls (5-11, 0-5), Tuesday evening, 7 p.m. at the XL Center in Hartford.