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November 7, 2007

Poor second half almost dooms Huskies

STORRS, Conn. - It was a sign that times were changing last season when the Huskies struggled in their season-opener against Quinnipiac, with the Bobcats pulling within five points with two minutes to go.

Nobody knew at the time what that game would mean. While UConn would cruise to 11 consecutive wins before beginning Big East play, they would finish out of the postseason.

UConn had a similar lapse Wednesday night, narrowly defeating a pesky Morgan State team, 69-65, in the first round of the Storrs Regional of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic.

"We thought when we were up 15 [at the beginning of the second half], we were going to put a show on," head coach Jim Calhoun said. "We did, but it was the wrong kind of show."

It may have been one of the sloppiest games the Huskies have ever played in - and certainly one of the most disorganized. While they managed to enter the half on an 18-4 run and appeared to finally hit their stride by utilizing the fast break, that momentum came to a halt in the second half.

UConn forced passes coming out of the layoff and missed several opportunities to convert, including a four-minute scoreless drought beginning at the 16-minute mark that made the team look like it had not been together in eight months.

"The first three, four minutes of the second half is big for any team," said guard Doug Wiggins. "That's when you've got to make your mark, and we didn't do that. That's why the lead disappeared."

The 2-2-1 press, which worked in flashes against Bryant in the team's second exhibition contest Sunday, was all but ineffective against a Bears team that featured, at times, four ball-handlers and was strong in transition. Calhoun was forced to abandon the strategy midway through the second half.

Also struggling was the Huskies' three-guard lineup, which they used steadily minutes after kicking off the second half. Originally, Calhoun had Jerome Dyson, A.J. Price and either Craig Austrie or Wiggins teaming with Jeff Adrien and Hasheem Thabeet, a scheme that had the two big men looking lost.

In turn, Calhoun gave the nod to Curtis Kelly, who finished with 13 points off 7-for-7 free-throw shooting and nine rebounds. But while he stood out on offense and put the Huskies on his back to break a 52-52 tie with 6:31 remaining, the team's inability to rebound down the stretch nearly doomed them to failure.

Morgan State not only capitalized on their own end of the court, netting 15 second-chance points, but they also limited UConn's opportunities, which was telling with the team shooting just 38.1 percent from the floor in the second period.

"I feel I could do better," Kelly said. "I think I owe a lot of my good performance to Jeff, who got me the ball down low, and A.J., who dished the ball real well, too."

It wasn't just the defense that led the Bears within points of pulling up what would have been their biggest upset in school history. They also took advantage of several key open shots, including one that pulled them within one point with 5:04 remaining when Marquise Kately sank an uncontested 3-pointer from the right side of the court.

Kately, a transfer from California, also had a chance to bring the Bears within two points with 37 seconds remaining before his shot, a floater down the lane, rimmed out.

The Bears sank 7-of-12 3-pointers in the second half to finish with a 50 percent average on the night, which served as a strong boost to their offense. Morgan State guard Reggie Holmes, who led the team in scoring, sank all six of his nine 3-point shots to finish with a team-high 18 points.

"The 3-point shot is a great equalizer," Calhoun said. "You've got to be prepared every single night."

"When you're a storied program, you get used to winning and you find ways to win," said Morgan State coach Todd Bozeman. "They held their composure. It's easy to break down when you have a team that's not as highly regarded as yourself."

Dyson led all scorers with 20 points, including the first five of the game for the Huskies and 13 in the second half. Adrien, who recorded a double-double in 15 games last season, kicked off this year strong with 12 points and 10 rebounds.

Next up for the Huskies will be the regional final of the tournament against Buffalo, which defeated Ohio Valley, 89-82, early Wednesday.

Zac Boyer covers UConn sports for Rivals.com. He can now be reached at zacboyer@rivals.com.

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