LOUISVILLE — Connecticut’s bench was lifeless except for a limping 69-year-old who sat, then stood, then waved, then yelled to no one in particular. No player budged. And Coach Jim Calhoun helplessly watched his team’s season implode in a South Region round-of-64 game late Thursday night.
The Huskies’ quest to defend their national title ended with a resounding thud at KFC Yum! Center against an Iowa State team that was better in almost every measurable area. The ninth-seeded Huskies played much of their 77-64 loss to eighth-seeded Iowa State in slow motion, allowing the Cyclones to build a 22-point first-half lead.
“They played 40 minutes and we played sporadically,” Calhoun said. “We got back into the game, then out of the game, a lot of that was self-induced. But Iowa State also took advantage of that opportunity.”
College basketball fans will be denied the juicy rematch of last year’s Kentucky-Connecticut national semifinal that matched two controversial coaches who are not particularly fond of each other. And in a rare occurrence, the Huskies will be denied a second game during the NCAA tournament’s first weekend. They had been 16-1 in opening-round NCAA tournament games since 1990 (the lone loss coming in 2008).
What’s more, in 17 previous NCAA tournament appearances since 1990, the Huskies had failed to make the Sweet 16 just four times (2008, 2005, 2000 and 1992) before Thursday’s early tournament exit. But between the team’s erratic play to Calhoun’s eight-game late-season absence because of a painful back condition, this has been anything but a typical season in Storrs.
The Huskies (20-14) nearly finished with the same middling Big East record they had last season, when they leaned on Kemba Walker to carry them to the conference tournament title and ultimately Calhoun’s third national championship. But that’s where the similarities end.
“Effort and attitude. We had a great player last year who brought that,” Huskies guard Shabazz Napier said of the difference between this season’s team and last season’s.
Connecticut became the first defending national champion knocked out in the tournament’s opening round since Princeton backdoored UCLA out of the bracket in 1996.
The Huskies managed a brief second-half rally Thursday, slicing the deficit to six points. But Iowa State snared one offensive rebound after another, including one that led to Chris Allen’s reverse layup that pushed the lead back to 11 with less than four minutes to play.
The Huskies left little doubt how Thursday’s affair would end. They were outhustled, outrebounded and outshot from the start against a capable Big 12 team laden with transfers. At least during the first half, Connecticut appeared consistently listless.
Iowa State guard Scott Christopherson stepped back and buried a three-pointer early in the first half, prompting an exasperated Calhoun to call a timeout. Once granted, Calhoun looked at forward Alex Oriakhi and repeatedly pointed to the bench.
Calhoun’s frustration continued two minutes later, when Iowa State’s Melvin Ejim beat prized freshman Andre Drummond on a backdoor cut, which led to Drummond committing his second foul.
Calhoun continued advising, yelling and cajoling, but with few results. Finally, after consecutive three-pointers by Iowa State extended the deficit to 20 points, Calhoun exploded from his seat and demanded a timeout.
He stood alone on the court looking at the scoreboard for several seconds before his team joined him, expressionless. And immediately after coming out of the timeout, Jeremy Lamb hoisted up an NBA-range three-pointer that missed.
Despite possessing a considerable size advantage, the Huskies were outscored in the paint, 20-12, in the first half.
“They threw the first punch and we were not ready for it,” Napier said. “We lost the game in the first half.”
Said Calhoun: “They played 40 minutes and we played sporadically. We got back into the game, then out of the game, a lot of that was self-induced. But Iowa State also took advantage of that opportunity.”