Not even the great Shabazz Napier could save the Connecticut Huskies in Houston Saturday night. A sluggish start that saw the Huskies trail by as many as 21 points in the first half wasn’t too much to overcome, as Connecticut took the lead late in the second half.
But down 73-71 with less than 10 seconds to play, Napier drove to the basket and his shot was blocked clean by Houston‘s defense, and two Tione Womack free throws put the final score at 75-71 as Houston upset Connecticut in the first college basketball game ever for the AAC. TaShawn Thomas led Houston with 23 points and hit two free throws with nine seconds left to give the Cougars the lead for good.
The result is a shocker, as the 17th ranked Huskies had no business losing to a Houston club who, despite a decent 9-5 record, were thought to be far behind Connecticut in terms of teams expected to compete for the AAC title. Connecticut fell to 11-2 with the loss and such a defeat comes down to a couple of factors.
First, it’s fair to wonder how up Connecticut really was for this game. In terms of attendance, the game drew not much more than friends and family as far as attendance is concerned. Empty seats could be seen in the first couple rows around the arena. That certainly isn’t an atmosphere that the Huskies are used to, considering their well-attended home games, and their old Big East tussles at places like Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Georgetown.
But the Big East left Connecticut behind in the great conference realignment of the 2010s, and the Huskies must adjust to their new reality if they are going to be a team that contends for a national title. Along with Memphis, the Huskies are still very much a team that will contend with Louisville at the top of the AAC. Saturday’s loss doesn’t change that even if it, for now, puts Connecticut at the bottom of the conference standings.
The AAC isn’t a bad conference, but it’s certainly different than what Connecticut is used to. You couldn’t blame the Huskies if they felt they could mail Saturday’s game in and still walk out with a 10-point win. It certainly looked like Connecticut wasn’t in it early, as Houston scored 10 of the game’s first 12 points and led by 21 with just more than a minute to play in the first half.
Napier finished with an All-American type game, scoring 27 points and adding nine rebounds and six assists. The loss certainly can’t be pinned on him. Though even he wasn’t much of a factor early, struggling to get shots up. He finished a respectable 8-for-18 from the field, making a pretty for a pretty efficient 27-point night.
But in the end, even Napier’s game wasn’t enough to dig the Huskies out of the problem they created for themselves. This is probably a good teaching moment for Connecticut head coach Kevin Ollie about getting his team to focus from minute one to minute 40, regardless of the opponent and no matter whether there are 2,000 or 20,000 people in the gym.
As great a player as Napier is, he isn’t a superhero and Connecticut can’t expect to play 20 to 25 minutes a night and rampage through the AAC.