TAMPA, FLA. — For UConn fans, these past four months — marked by feel-good moments and memories — have been like a giant party.
They’ve been a coming-out party for rookie coach Kevin Ollie and point guard/overtime superhero Shabazz Napier. They’ve been a true celebration of heart and toughness, of “playing for each other,” as Ollie would say, with no tangible goal in sight.
The party has been fun.
And the past few games have served as the cliche, record-scratching finish to the festivities: Some drunk guy vomits in the living room — on the furniture, on the other guests. The music cuts out. All conversation stops. Everyone leaves, the gross final minutes ruining an awesome couple of hours.
A rash of misfortune has puked all over UConn’s storybook ending, and there are barely any Huskies left to clean the mess.
The injury report is almost laughable. It seems made-up: Napier (sprained right foot), Niels Giffey (fractured right index finger), Omar Calhoun (sprained right wrist). After Wednesday’s 65-51 loss at last-place South Florida, you can add Tyler Olander, too. UConn’s starting center left the Sun Dome on crutches, his left foot in a walking boot.
“Another guy down,” said UConn guard R.J. Evans as Olander crutched through the hallway.
The medical staff must be running low on walking boots and bandages. UConn appeared to be low on fight, the insane string of injuries taking its toll. For the first time all year, UConn looked like it had nothing to play for.
The Huskies packed it in Wednesday. South Florida made a run in the second half and UConn let it happen.
“We just broke down mentally, stopped playing defense and stopped talking,” said UConn forward DeAndre Daniels. “We weren’t together and that’s when we need our captain Shabazz (Napier) to bring us together. We just let it go — gave it up.”
Daniels, the only bright spot, saw USF forward Victor Rudd barreling down the lane late in the second half. He decided, like many of his teammates on this night, to get the hell out of the way. Rudd’s dunk, which put USF ahead 61-44, iced it. But thanks to some solid USF shooting and some poor UConn help defense, this thing was long over by the time Daniels side-stepped Rudd.
We learned Wednesday that UConn just isn’t the same — not even close — without Napier. It’s amazing how ordinary Boatright looks alone in the backcourt. We learned that there’s only so much adversity one team can overcome. Full-heart or half-heart, totally engaged or totally lifeless, a lineup of Boatright, Evans, Daniels, Leon Tolksdorf and Phil Nolan — which could very well be the starting five against Providence — won’t win many Big East games. That’s the reality of it.
We learned that Ollie, the perpetual optimist, may go his entire career without saying something negative. When asked if he liked his team’s effort — an open invitation to say what Daniels later admitted — he responded, “I’m satisfied with their effort…we’ve got to play better defense, though.”
Really, UConn’s effort on the defensive end was an issue from the beginning. South Florida point guard Anthony Collins had his way with Boatright, penetrating into the paint whenever he pleased. When Boatright got beat, UConn didn’t bother to help: Following an early second half turnover, Olander was back on defense, but simply failed to move across the paint to challenge the shot. USF guard Martino Brock laid the ball in, tying the score, 32-32. Aided by UConn’s defensive indifference, the Bulls would score 25 of the game’s next 33 points.
“We were spread out on defense, staying locked to our man, not playing our principles,” Evans said. “We got away from that.”
Outside of Daniels, UConn’s offense — which shot a meager 35 percent — was equally dreadful. Boatright had trouble creating good shots. Calhoun, visibly affected by a sprained right wrist, had trouble making any shots: His 1-for-14 performance included eight misfires from 3-point range, a 10-foot floater left short and a missed dunk. He can’t be sure he’ll play Saturday.
“We’ll see what happens,” Calhoun said. “Right now, I don’t know.”
Calhoun exited with 6:45 remaining and UConn down 15. He joined Napier and Giffey — both dressed for a night out, sporting nearly-identical blue button-ups and jeans — on the bench. Rudd dunked a few more times, a walk-on scored and UConn posted its lowest scoring output of the season.
It was surely tough to stomach. Knowing Ollie, though, there will be no “pity party” — a term he’s used at times — in this final week.
“Like coach (Ollie) always says, ‘It’s about growing pains, it’s how you respond to this,’” Evans said. “What we’ve accomplished this year, this doesn’t’ take anything away from it.”
A storybook ending this is not. That loss to USF was enough to make UConn fans sick. But now, the question becomes: Do you remember the guy puking at the end of the party, or do you remember everything else?