No one predicted an easy men's basketball season for UConn. The Huskies' start has been exhilarating for sure, but disappointments were inevitable at the dawn of this new era under Kevin Ollie.
The first of these came upon UConn at the Paradise Jam on Monday night, the Huskies fighting and clawing their way back from a 10-point deficit again, but ultimately falling short in their bid to bring a trophy back to Storrs.
New Mexico proved steadier and sturdier down the stretch and came away with a 66-60 victory in the tournament's championship game. The Huskies (4-1) settle for second place, and after two long, exotic trips to Germany and the Caribbean, return home to get on with the rest of their season.
Shabazz Napier scored 23 in another stirring effort for the Huskies, Ryan Boatright had 12 and Omar Calhoun 10, but the lack of an inside game hurt UConn this time. New Mexico outrebounded them 33 to 25, but 12 to 4 down the stretch.
Kendall Williams, the Jam's MVP, scored 15, Hugh Greenwood got 12 for the Lobos (4-0).
UConn trailed most of the second half, falling 10 points behind when Napier took over, as he has done several times this season. Napier scored eight points in a 1-minute, 55-second stretch to pull UConn back into the game. The Huskies got within one point on DeAndre Daniels' three-pointer with 3:51 left to play, and UConn appeared poised for another dramatic finish.
The Huskies got the ball back on a traveling call, but couldn't get the basket they needed there. But next time down the floor, Boatright drew a foul in the act of shooting a three. Boatright made all three to put the Huskies ahead 55-53 with 2:33 left, but Greenwood responded with a three-pointer at the other end to put the Lobos back up by one.
Tyler Olander picked up his fourth foul, an offensive foul, with 1:13 left, giving New Mexico, now up three, the ball and a chance to put it away. Greenwood scored on a base-line move to put the Lobos up by five, and they controlled it from there.
"We didn't make the plays down the stretch that we've been making," Ollie said, "they got to the foul line, and we didn't and that's the ball game right there. Shabazz turned it up, but we need some other people to contribute."
"Through all the planes and all the travel and all the miles, we got to this championship game," Ollie said. "I'm proud of the guys in there."
"We fought hard," Napier said, "but we let up when we got up two. ... Those guys played hard defense. I tried to get to the line, tried to create fouls, but they played tough defense against us."
Although they played very late Sunday night, the Huskies came out with boundless energy and looked more determined than ever to ignite their fastbreak. They jumped out to a 6-2 lead, as Omar Calhoun was the one New Mexico was leaving open. Calhoun hit a three-pointer to give the Huskies a 9-4 lead, and Daniels scored on a lay-in to make it 13-10.
The Huskies were again getting out-rebounded, but not by a wide margin, and they were getting steals and forcing turnovers. Boatright scored his first field goal on a drive through the lane, putting UConn ahead, 18-17, and they extended their lead to 25-20 with 2:58 to go in the half when Napier hit a jumper, his first field goal.
But the Lobos, who were bolstered by the return of senior point guard Jamal Fenton from an NCAA suspension, were able to keep pace. They pulled even with 1:46 left in the half when Chad Adams got to the line and hit both.
Cameron Bairstow put the Lobos ahead with two free throws, but Boatright responded with a jump shot at the other end, with 41.6 seconds left, to tie the game again at 27. Back and forth it went, with Tony Snell, whose last-second three had lifted New Mexico over George Mason on Sunday, hitting a three to put the Lobos back on top, 30-27, the last made shot of the half.
UConn was holding its own on the boards, down 17 to 15 in rebounds against a much bigger opponent, but again nearly all of UConn's scoring was coming from the backcourt.
New Mexico continued to roll in the second half, opening with a 9-2 run, finishing with Williams' three-pointer. From UConn's biggest lead late in the first half, to the 15-minute mark of the second, the Lobos outscored UConn 22-6. The Lobos went 21 for 21 from free throw line