STORRS, Conn. — A more distinct tone could not be set for a basketball game. UConn's first 11 possessions ended with five missed shots and six turnovers.
"The crowd's supposed to stand up 'til we make our first shot," Ryan Boatright said. "It seemed like they were standing forever."
Not until Phil Nolan put in a layup, after some 6:14 had elapsed, did the Huskies score against Southern Methodist's defense. Then the 10,176 fans settled into their seats, never given much reason to stand and holler again. A long, frustrating Sunday afternoon ended with the Huskies shooting 29 percent from the floor and losing, 64-55.
"We beat a great team," SMU coach Larry Brown said, "So much tradition here. Great crowd. We had to play our best by far on the defensive end to do this."
It was SMU's second victory over UConn this season, but the Mustangs' first quality win on the road. At 22-6 and 11-4 in the American Athletic Conference, SMU is in far better shape to claim its first tournament berth in two decades. This loss, on a day UConn honored its 1998-99 national champions, hurts the 21st-ranked Huskies (21-6, 9-5) on several levels:
They figure to fall out of the rankings this week; losing at home will adversely affect their RPI position, vital for a favorable NCAA seed; and they are now unlikely to finish in the top three and avoid the toughest draw in the league in the AAC Tournament. UConn next plays at South Florida on Wednesday night.
"We've got to be a tougher-minded team," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "We've put ourselves in a good position and we can't let opportunities like this slip. Hopefully, we'll learn from it."
Boatright and Shabazz Napier each scored 15 points but had to work extraordinarily hard for them.
"I'm looking at my starters," Ollie said, "Shabazz, 5-for-16, Boat 3-for-12, DeAndre (Daniels) 2-for-10. ... Man, a lot of missed shots."
In the end, the Huskies were 16-for-54 from the floor and 6-for-21 on three-point attempts, so outrebounding SMU 36-31 had little meaning. In fact, SMU shot 52 percent in the second half and got every rebound it needed. During another frustrating stretch, the Mustangs grabbed four offensive rebounds and drew four fouls before the Huskies could regain possession. SMU came out of that with a 44-43 lead with 12:22 to play.
"We came out lackadaisical," Ollie said. "Our defense was tight, it kept us in the game, (but) in the second half they went on a run and kind of put us back on our heels."
UConn never led in the game. The Huskies, trailing 7-0 and 12-5, fought hard on defense in the first half and scratched back to tie the game, 25-25, on Daniels' layup with 45 seconds to go in the half, but SMU took a 27-25 lead into the break.
Both teams had 11 turnovers in the first half, and neither shot well. "I thought both teams defended like crazy," Brown said. "We didn't want them to get out in transition, we wanted them to score against our half-court defense."
In the second half, the SMU defense continued to stymie UConn at every turn. As it was for stretches in other games this year, UConn, with only seven assists, just did not keep the ball moving. Ollie wanted his team to switch sides as many as three or four times on each possession.
"Coach told us we'd have to play the whole clock, the full clock, to get the right shot," said Niels Giffey, who was 4-for-6 and scored 11 points. "We needed to move the ball side to side - we should have done more of that and attacked the paint. We should have done more cutting, to give 'Bazz and 'Boat more options. Our offense was kind of stationary at times."
Napier hit a jumper with 4:36 left to bring the Huskies within five, at 54-49, and Amida Brimah stole the ball at the other end. The crowd finally had a chance to let off steam, but Daniels' three-pointer rattled in and out, and back to the other end, Sterling Brown hit a three to restore SMU's lead to eight with 3:15 left. That was about it.
"I don't think we played a bad game as far as the things we need to work on," Boatright said, "we just didn't make shots. We even executed our plays, but missed the shot at the end."
Nic Moore and Nick Russell each scored 15 for SMU, its guards much more efficient in this game, a combined 8-for-17. Markus Kennedy had 13 points and seven rebounds, another of those brawny inside players the Huskies, outscored 24-14 in the paint, just could not match. In both games, Jan. 4 and Sunday, SMU has proved to be a bad matchup for UConn.
"They're nine or 10 (players) deep and everybody that comes in off the bench is long and athletic," Ollie said. "They play hard and they know (Brown's) system and they trust each other. We've got to get to that point where we trust each other. We'll get there. We do it in spurts, but you have to do it 40 minutes to beat a good team like SMU."