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Arizona edges UConn in wild atmosphere at XL

POSTED December 02, 2018
BY Patrick Tiscia
Twitter: @PatrickTiscia

HARTFORD – Sunday was like old times at the XL Center, a flashback to the glory days of when Chris Smith, Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton and Shabazz Napiers played in the old building. The crowd for UConn’s game against perennial national power Arizona was large, electric, and on edge with the officials all game. The Huskies played inspired basketball and gave the gathering of 14,603 every reason to believe they could win the contest and also reason to believe they’re a basketball team worth investing their time into.

Arizona ultimately prevailed, 76-72, thanks to its precision at the foul line (19-of-22) and turnover differential (-7). But for UConn, Sunday showcased the positive vibes around the program since Dan Hurley took over as coach.

“I remember playing here in the early-to-mid-90s (with Seton Hall), and people would always talk about what it’s like at the XL when you get a great crowd,” Hurley said. “The crowd (today) was awesome. They really carried us emotionally through some choppy play.”

“We knew when chose to play this series that when we ventured out here, we would get one of the great crowds in the country,” added Arizona head coach Sean Miller. “I not only respect UConn, but also Dan Hurley. I can remember games here as far back as 1991 and it’s an all-time great crowd.”

The atmosphere was the best in the building since the Huskies beat Houston in the 2017 AAC Tournament. For a regular season game? You’d probably have to go back to UConn’s win over Georgetown in their Big East reunion in 2016. That was apparent early when the Huskies went on an 8-0 run in the first half to take their first lead of the game. The sequence was highlighted by Christian Vital’s spinning lay-up in transition and Sidney Wilson’s corner three.

The building was so loud it was difficult to hear the public address announcer say Wilson’s name after the shot. Miller called timeout and the noise went a level higher.

“For my first time being at XL, it was a great experience,” said Wilson, who scored seven points in his second game and first with considerable minutes (12). “The crowd did a great job keeping us in the game, they were like a sixth person on the court for us.”

The Wildcats (6-2), with the NBA’s overall No. 1 draft pick in Deandre Ayton, handled UConn with ease last season in Arizona, 73-58. Even without Ayton, they have the look of a strong team headed to the Top 25 and eventually the NCAA Tournament. Their two losses, so far, have come to Top 8 teams in Gonzaga and Auburn.

On Sunday, they were led by Brandon Randolph’s 20 points, while Chase Jeter notched 14 points and seven rebounds. Dylan Smith and Ryan Luther combined for an important 20 points off the bench.

“You can’t allow their secondary players to beat you, especially at home. That’s not good,” Hurley said.

Every time the Huskies got close, Arizona had an answer, especially at the foul line. UConn never took a shot in the final minutes that had the chance to tie the score.

Its 19 turnovers, in the end, were too much to overcome.

“We were just trying to do too much,” Hurley said. “There’s a lack of crispness with our passing. Our habits aren’t where they need to be if you want to be a really good team across the board.”

Jalen Adams shot well again, making 9-of-16 shots on his way to 21 points. He also, though, committed five turnovers and missed a key foul shot in the final minute. Alterique Gilbert took a hard fall early in the game and could never develop a rhythm, missing nine of his 12 shots, while Vital had seven turnovers and was a team-worst -8. If not for Eric Cobb’s double-double (12 points, 10 rebounds) off the bench, Arizona would’ve won easily. But the Huskies feel a great opportunity slipped away.

“We should have won this game,” Hurley noted. “You have to credit Arizona. Sean’s a heck of a coach and runs a heck of a program. But we were supposed to win this game.”

“I know a lot of the guys, including myself, are just disappointed,” Adams said. “We know we’re capable of more, we just didn’t show that today.”

UConn has two more shots at strong out-of-conference foes before conference play begins, starting next Saturday against No. 15 Florida State in Newark and against defending national champion Villanova right before Christmas at Madison Square Garden.

A year ago, the Huskies had no hope in such games, getting blown out, notably, in their two XL Center sellouts versus Villanova and Wichita State. Sunday was a great flash to the past, but also a great indicator of what’s ahead and, thankfully, that the last two years are behind.

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