STORRS, Conn. -- There is only way to beat a defense like SMU puts out there. The Mustangs are big, atletic and play physical and under Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown have heavy preparation coming into games.
UConn got a little taste of what SMU wanted to do in January when the Huskies lost in Dallas.
Sunday's return game was going to be a test in how much the Huskies have learned. UConn's better on the boards and even according to Brown a much better and different team than the one that he played in January.
What Sunday's game showed was that for all its talents and hard-work and individual play, nothing beats a team game and crisp offense.
SMU put the clamps on UConn on Sunday, holding the Huskies to a season low 29.6 percent shooting in a 64-55 win at a sold-out Gampel Pavilion.
In one sense, the breakdown in UConn's offense was stunning. The Huskies had blown out teams such as Temple (twice), Houston, UCF (twice) and USF since it last played SMU. The free-flowing offense that at times looked so easy against other league foes was a struggle. UConn turned the ball over, missed shots, wasn't able to get to their spots on the floor and generally were out of sync and rhythm.
Shabazz Napier had perhaps his worst game of the season with an 15 points on 5 of 16 shooting, two assists and an uncharacteristic five turnovers. Ryan Boatright was 3 of 12 for 15 points and DeAndre Daniels was 2 of 10 for six points.
SMU is big, with guards 6-foot-4 and long on the baseline making it very difficult for UConn's thin, but quick team to generate shooting space off the dribble.
"We have as good a defensive guard as there is in the country in Nick Russell and we have some length behind him,” Brown said.
UConn's offense was stagnant, the Huskies impatient in the halfcourt and more content to drive to the basket erratically or force the first or second option on offense. SMU, which is in the top 3 in the nation inf field goal percentage defense, pride themselves on stopping those options. SMU makes you work on offense and the only way to beat that is with the pass.
UConn showed why with a disastrous offensive game shooting 16 of 54 with seven assists and 16 turnovers in the game.
This wasn't about energy or heart. This was about patience and trust. SMU isn't beatable off the dribble or 1-on-1. The way to beat SMU is to pass the ball, execute offense and hit open shots. UConn didn't do any of that, and couldn't get out on the break enough for easy baskets. It required a smart and patient gameplan, something UConn didn't do. the Huskies were more content to bomb 3s, which it hit 6 of 21 on.
"(SMU) loaded up the first and second side. I told the guys the whole time we were preparing 'We've got to get to the third and fourth (options).' We just didn't have enough discipline to do that and we didn't stay solid enough to do it."
SMU is 2-0 against the Huskies this year, and both times beat them up physically as well as frustrated them on offense. When the Huskies go bad, the assists number falls and the seven assists is well below how the Huskies' average of 12.8 per game. UConn scored 20 points below its average and despite winning the rebounding battle, was crushed in the paint 24-14.
Niels Giffey, who was 4 of 6 for 11 points, said the biggest problem was an inability to pass the ball around on the perimeter. SMU tries to take away the first and second options. UConn more often than not broke down the offense and tried to make plays off the dribble late in the clock. That's a recipe for failure.
"This is the point in the season where they know what’s going to come," Giffey said. "They scout us and they’ll take our first or second option away. We have to continue to work to get the right shots at the right time. And, obviously you have to move the defense a couple times before doing that.”
Too often the Huskies were left with Napier or Boatright dribbling off a pick and role trying to create. SMU was prepared for it an showed why it's one of the better defensive teams in the nation.
"They were tough defensively, but you just have to move the basketball," Ollie said. "We made them even tougher by staying on the first side. But they are tough defensively. They're long and aggressive. Nic Moore is a tough-headed point guard. And they go 10 deep. Everybody who comes off is long and athletic."
That length posed a problem for the Huskies. Crisp ball movement is the answer, and the Huskies didn't have it.
"You can't beat them off the first option," Boatright said. "You have to get to your second and third option and that's what coach Ollie kept preaching to us. We executed sometimes, but we just had a bad game all-around especially on the offensive end. I think we played pretty good defense and we outrebounded them, but we just didn't execute on offense."
The loss is costly for the Huskies in terms of AAC tourney seeding. The top five teams are all jockeying for position and UConn (21-6, 9-5)had a chance to move into third place in the league, and out of the 4/5 game in the AAC tournament quarterfinals. Now, the Huskies are 1.5 games behind SMU for third place in the league and are also down the tiebreak to the Mustangs (22-6. 11-4).
"It's a setback," Boatright said. "We lost. I don't think we played a bad game as far as things we really need to work on. I think we did everything well. We just didn't make shots. We even executed our plays. We just missed the shot at the end."