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viewpoint In a loss, Hurley’s UConn men prove they’re not cowards

February 15, 2019

HARTFORD — A half hour after this one was over, after his team had shown how much fight it has, after his young, hobbled team also had shown how far away it is from an elite power like Houston, Dan Hurley made a pronouncement.

Sure, the UConn coach had made similar pronouncements this season. And he will make more of the same before they pack the basketballs away in March. Yet it is worth repeating, not only because of the quality of the opponent the Huskies had faced on this Thursday night but because his words were so colorful.

Granted, not as colorful as what happened with 2 minutes, 50 seconds left in the 71-63 loss to the No. 9 Cougars at the XL Center. Yet colorful, poignant and an injection of hope that UConn fans need right about now nonetheless.

“We don’t do that anymore here,” Hurley said when asked how the Huskies had looked into a 16-point second half deficit and refused to disappear and float away. “We show up and we play like UConn men. We might not be everything we need to be in terms of being whole and having everything we need to be what UConn fans are used to seeing out on the court.

“But what we aren’t are a bunch of cowards. We are not cowards! We are not soft. We’re tough. We’re improving. We’re developing a culture here of not giving in and playing through and competing and digging our heels in when things get hard and showing what our character is.”

OK, it’s not as metaphorically lush as Kevin Ollie declaring that escalators are for cowards. And later, as his ship was sinking, declaring rats are the first ones to flee a sinking vessel.

Then again, Ollie-isms eventually became Folly-isms. Platitudes eventually failed to change enough attitudes.

We are not cowards!

Yes, there was some teeth to it.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of stages to digging out of where this program has been,” Hurley said. “That’s one of the first parts of it. You could see it happening. We had a lot of young guys running around out there tonight versus a very seasoned, excellent basketball team that is incredibly well coached.”

There was 2:50 remaining when a shot clock violation was called on Houston. UConn was down seven points.

The problem in Hurley’s bulging eyes and in Christian Vital’s hyperactive foot was that the Huskies already had grabbed possession of the basketball and one second remained on the shot clock as they broke out on the fast break. The energy had already returned to the building. The 10,095 fans were lit. This was a golden chance to cut it to five points.

And then? Whistle. Dead ball.

Vital ran over to the digital advertising sign in front of the first row of media seats and gave it a good swift kick. It was quite the show and not nearly as much of a show as Hurley. The UConn coach, who somehow had lost his glasses, came stomping down the sidelines. He left out some colorful language that if we are correct in our lip reading, went something like, “Holy, F-bomb, S-bomb!”

He threw h is right hand dramatically to his forehead. As he continued to stomp through his players on the bench, he folded his arms, probably to make sure he didn’t poke someone’s eye out. His mouth opened to a giant “O” and he left it that way for several seconds. Expect the video to go viral.

Later, Hurley would preface his criticism by calling it a great officiating crew.

“We cut it to five or four and who knows wh at happens?” Hurley said. “Obviously, it was a missed call. (Gerry Pollard) felt bad about it. Standup guy … just a blown call.”

“I’m not going to comment about the refs,” said Vital, who led UConn with 15 points. “I’m not going to get myself in trouble. It is what it is. Everyone saw what happened.”

The truth is, UConn lost it in the first five to eight minutes of the second half. A better, stronger, more mature team bounced back for a wayward first half. That, and the Huskies shooting 14 of 25 from the free throw line made the narrow path to victory — as Hurley called it — impossible to find.

“A win this group desperately wanted, needed,” Hurley said. “It would have been great for the program.”

Sampson was pleased with the way his Cougars shared the ball and made the extra pass. “Connecticut chose not to help off (Armoni) Brooks or (Corey) Davis,” he said. “Once we got the penetration, we always made the extra pass and could find them. We have a fast-and-stated rule that if you get an offensive rebound you ‘dagger.’ What that means you kick it out. That’s a way for us to get threes.”

The Cougars’ 11 threes also was a difference.

Hurley called the Cougars “men” and “a team with a chance to get to the Final Four.” True and true.

Yet any notion that this rebuilding process will be smooth, predictable and unerringly systematic is the falsest notion of all. Sure, the blueprint will be systematic. Yes, Akok Akok could be very special. Yes, James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney will bring considerable hope.

Yet when you factor in injuries, opponents, travel and the ups and downs of young athletes, you begin to understand the fits and starts of a long-term upward trajectory. You just don’t know what the good stuff will pop up. Every game brings an opportunity for growth.

That’s why it’s stupid to pack in a season after Jalen Adams’ injury. That’s why it’s stupid to get all hung up on exactly when Alterique Gilbert will return from his shoulder injury. Obviously, Hurley erred in making it sound like Gilbert would come back much sooner than he has. He admitted it. So now it looks like it will likely be next Thursday at SMU.

If it is, great. If it isn’t? Look, the kid is afraid of what might happen to that surgically repaired shoulder. When he is 100 percent ready in his own mind, that’s when he should play. There is only one miracle left in the UConn bag. That’s a shocking run to the AAC Tournament title and an automatic NCAA bid.

Other than that, don’t sell a NIT bid and a potential run there short. If Adams decides he doesn’t want to risk further injuring his knee before going pro, that’s his call. In the meantime, there are no moral victories. There are only losses that can be growing experiences for guys like Sidney Wilson, Tyler Polley, Christian Vital and Josh Carlton.

They grew some on this night. They need to grow plenty more.

“When I’m staring at the ceiling at 4 a.m. thinking about all the lost possessions and all the lost chances, it’s not going to mean much to me until we watch the coaches tape tomorrow in the morning and we see some real valiant efforts by our guys and a toughness about them,” Hurley said. “Listen, the guys who are out there, this doesn’t resemble the UConn everyone is used to seeing here.

“Small wins obviously have to be the young guys developing, showing they have a future here as a foundation. Again, that the culture is changing, and we are not laying down and accepting defeat and playing like losers and softies. We don’t do that here.”

The escalator can stay.

But no cowards.

jeff.jacobs

@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs123