All the ingredients that have marked this disappointing season for UConn were on display in the final minute of its crushing, 65-63 second-round National Invitational Tournament loss to Virginia Tech tonight at Cassell Coliseum. Everything, that is, but the Huskies' effort.
UConn's heart and hustle, questionable too many times in too many losses this season, was unquestioned in this one. The Huskies played hard, played with passion, and played well enough to advance to the tournament's quarterfinals. They simply fell a bit short, and it will instead be the Hokies playing Rhode Island on Wednesday night.
Gotta admit, I was looking forward to a UConn-URI tilt on Wednesday at the Ryan Center. So was Jim Calhoun.
"If we hadn't played well tonight, I would have said it was time to bring the curtain down," Calhoun said. "It wasn't time to bring the curtain down. We got it. We didn't make some of the plays I would have liked to see us make, but we really got it tonight. It's unfortunate we couldn't have gotten a little finalization in the end."
The Huskies finish 18-16. More tellingly, they wind up 1-8 in games decided by five points or less.
"That was exactly what happened all season, pretty much every other game," senior Gavin Edwards said of the tight loss.
Added Kemba Walker: "It was just like a jinx or something. That's how it's been for the whole season."
UConn took a 52-51 lead on an Edwards stickback with 8 minutes, 17 seconds to play and didn't trail again until the closing seconds. A pair of free throws by Victor Davila with 49.3 seconds left brought Tech to within a point (63-62), and with 22.4 ticks left, Jerome Dyson had a pass tipped, collected the loose ball but was whistled for a backcourt violation.
"He got knocked out of bounds," said Calhoun. "He ended up underneath the scorer's table."
Added Dyson: I definitely did (get bumped). He hit the ball, the ball goes back, (the referee) calls backcourt. I didn't even hear the whistle blow until the ball went out of bounds, so … I don't have much to say."
Tech came down and quickly got it to red-hot Dorenzo Hudson, who buried a 17-footer off a screen to give the Hokies a 64-63 lead with 14.1 seconds left.
UConn called a timeout, and as the players returned to the floor, "Enter Sandman" blared on the p.a. system. Off to never, never land, indeed ... Walker took the ball to about 12 feet and had his shot blocked by Jeff Allen. He grabbed the loose ball but, instead of putting up a shot, passed to Edwards – who missed a point-blank shot.
"I was going to go up, but a guy stepped in front of me so I threw it to Gavin," said Walker. "Unfortunately, it didn't go in."
Said Edwards: "I thought he was going to shoot it."
Terrell Bell grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He missed the first free throw, made the second, Walker's three-quarter court shot fell way short, and UConn's season was over.
"It's a very hard game for me, far and away the hardest (of the season)," said Calhoun. "(It's) an NIT game in Blacksburg, Va., that the nation's not going to care about. But I care about it greatly, because they got it tonight. We, as a team, got it. That's the best opportunity I remember us having at the end of a game in one of these close games."
Virginia Tech improved to 25-8, matching a school record for wins in a season. ACC scoring leader Malcolm Delaney was held to just six points on 2-for-14 shooting, but Hudson picked up the slack with a game-high 27 points – 17 of them in the latter half on 7-for-10 shooting.
When not holding Delaney in check, Walker led the Huskies with 18 points. In their final games at UConn, Dyson had 15 points, Edwards 10 and Stanley Robinson nine.
When the dust had settled, Calhoun was asked about the status of the program and what the future holds.
"Right now, the only future I have is going into that locker room and let them know how I feel about them," he said. "(I'll tell them), 'If you do that every night the rest of your life, be it in basketball or otherwise, you're going to be just fine'."
***Both Calhoun and Tech coach Seth Greenberg were hit with technical fouls. Greenberg's came less than six minutes into the game after yelling at the officials. Calhoun's came just under four minutes into the latter half, after Robinson was called for an elbow while grabbing a rebound. The officials huddled around the monitor to determine whether it was a flagrant foul and repeatedly asked Calhoun to leave the area. He didn't, and referee Doug Shows T'd him up.
***The vocal crowd of 6,983 wanted a technical on Ater Majok late in the first half. After Dyson had fouled Delaney and Delaney lay on the floor, it appeared Majok kicked Delaney – perhaps inadvertently – in the head. The refs didn't see it, but the crowed booed Majok each time he touched the ball, a la Ralph Sampson at Boston Garden in the 1986 NBA Finals, the rest of the way – even in the halftime layup drills.
***Davila was a 50.8 percent foul-shooter this season, but swished 4-of-4 over the final two minutes, barely grazing net on each shot.
***Final words from Robinson and Dyson, both of whom could hear their names selected in June's NBA Draft.
"Overall, I'll just say I'm happy I played with these guys," said Sticks. "I'm glad I came to UConn and stayed here all four years."
Dyson: "It's a little sad. The season had so many ups and downs. At times, we played like we're one of the best teams in the country, and at times we played like we shouldn't even be in the NIT. It hurts to know the potential that we had here and the efforts we made in some games weren't our best – and if we had, the season would have been a lot different.
"It's hard to put into words. The four years I've been here have been great. I owe coach a lot. He's been with me every step of the way, when he could have just given up on me. I'm just blessed and happy I had the opportunity to play here."
Does Dyson feel he's hurt his NBA stock with his end-of-the-season slump?
"They'll have a lot of opportunities to see me. There will be a lot of workouts and camps. I just have to get back on top of my game. I felt like the last two games, I was playing well. The shots felt good."
***Highly, highly doubtful, but you never know -- this could have been Walker's last game in a UConn uniform, too.
"I don't know yet," Walker said when asked if he's definitely coming back next season. "I'm leaving that up to coach. We'll talk about it soon, I'm pretty sure. He'll let me know."
Can't imagine how Walker doesn't return to Storrs next season.