UConn Men Fall To St. John's, 71-65

The Hartford Courant

Kevin Ollie seems to be tired of talking about comebacks, especially when the deal is not ultimately closed.

The Huskies staged another one of them on the big stage Wednesday night, coming from 15 points behind to take the lead, but St. John's steadied, regained control and beat UConn 71-65 in Big East men's basketball before 8,441 at Madison Square Garden.

"When we play with effort and energy, you see what happens in the second half," Ollie said. "That's on me. I've got to make some changes."

The Huskies couldn't have played a worse first half than they did against South Florida on Sunday, when they shot 5 of 27 and scored just 15 points, but they gave that performance a run for its money. Against St. John's, with Shabazz Napier sitting the first six minutes for breaking a team rule, the Huskies were 8 of 34 in the first half, scoring 20 points. They came from 12 down to beat USF in OT, but couldn't get over the top in New York.

"We have to start games a different way," Niels Giffey said. "We're still working on it, still trying to figure it out. The main thing we're talking about is energy; you could feel the difference in the second half. It was a different feeling playing the game, we were sharing the ball more."

Ollie apparently wasn't thrilled with Ryan Boatright, either, sitting him for nine minutes in the second half.

UConn (15-6 overall, 5-4 in the Big East) has come from far behind in several games this season, but in four of those games, against New Mexico, Marquette, Pittsburgh and now St. John's, their comebacks have gone for naught. This time, the Huskies trailed by 15 points, 39-24, with 14:40 to play when Napier got hot, hitting his first field goal, a three-pointer, to start a 7-0 spurt. After a bizarre series of offsetting flagrant fouls against Enosch Wolf and St. John's JaKarr Sampson resulted in one made foul shot, UConn resumed with the ball and Napier hit another three to make it 40-36. He had scored nine points in 1:58, and finished with 14.

"Their ball pressure turned us over," St. John's coach Steve Lavin said, "discombobulated us, rattled us, and that' how they were able to crawl back in the game."

UConn tied it at 44 when Giffey completed a three-point play, and tied it again, at 51, on Boatright's three-pointer. When Boatright hit two free throws, UConn led for the first time, 53-51, with 4:30 to play.

"We don't ever give up," DeAndre Daniels said. "We find a way to come back when we're down."

But St. John's (15-8, 7-4) then scored the next nine points. Phil Greene IV tied it with a layup, and Sampson, who played most of the second half with four fouls, hit a jumper and D'Angelo Harrison, who had missed 10 of his first 11 shots, made a three. After Sir'Dominic Pointer hit two free throws, the Red Storm led 60-53 with 2:24 left and, finishing 24 of 31 from the free-throw line, closed out the game. Sampson scored 18, Harrison and Marco Bourgault each scored 11.

"I've been in a hundred games like that," said Greene, who scored 10 points. "You can't get down on yourself, or get too high. You just have to finish the game."

In past games, UConn players talked of spending so much energy to catch up that they sagged at the end. Ollie wasn't buying that.

"It wasn't a lack of energy at the end," he said. "We weren't tired. It was breakdowns. We gave Greene an easy layup on a pick and roll; we left Harrison open for a three in transition. Breakdowns."

Napier, the Big East player of the week and UConn's leading scorer and rebounder, sat the first five minutes before getting up to check in. UConn's offense looked lost, starting 0 of 8. He entered with 13:50 to go and the Huskies trailing 11-6, but they were outscored 9-1 as St. John's opened a 20-7 lead.

"We weren't talking, we weren't playing happy," said Daniels, who had 12 points and seven rebounds.

The Huskies were unable to go inside effectively and unable to penetrate, so they had to settle for three-point shots. Omar Calhoun, who scored 21 points, hit three late in the half and scored 13 of UConn's 20 first-half points. UConn ended up taking 28 three-point shots, making 10, and making 20 of 65 from the floor overall.

"We can't settle for that many threes," Ollie said. "We've got to attack the rim. We've got to make layups and go up strong. We can't shoot 29 percent [against South Florida] and then come back and shoot 30 percent [Wednesday] and expect to win. Hopefully, we can play a two-half game the next time we step out on the court at Seton Hall on Sunday."

Napier Benched

Napier was a last-minute scratch from UConn's lineup. According to a Huskies spokesman, it was because of a "violation of a team rule."

Napier was replaced by Giffey.

Napier, UConn's leading scorer and rebounder, was on the floor for all the pregame activity.

With 15 minutes remaining in the first half, Napier got up off the bench to check in, and he did with 13:44 left, so apparently his punishment was to sit the first five minutes. Napier was mentally into the game, shouting encouragement to his teammates as he sat.

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