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UConn men, short-handed but feisty, fall at Memphis, 78-71

The UConn men fell behind quickly and spent Sunday afternoon chasing Memphis. Feisty and resilient, the Huskies stayed in the game, but could not navigate what will now be a narrow path to victories.

And the Tigers prevailed at the FedEx Forum 78-71 before 17,162 in American Athletic Conference men’s basketball.

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“I’m proud of the way we fought, but a loss is a loss,” said coach Dan Hurley, who played cheerleader for his younger players much of the day. “... To come in here with a seven-man rotation, most of which are young players, it gives us great hope moving forward. It [stinks] to lose, but to see your future playing well out there against some men, it was a good thing.”

With Jalen Adams (knee) out four to six weeks, and Alterique Gilbert (shoulder) not ready to return, UConn had a shay started against Memphis’ explosive offense and was down by as much as 14 in the first half, but cut it down to seven at the break. Down 16 early in the second, the Huskies were within six at times in the second half, and within four after Tarin Smith’s 3-pointer with 1:14 to go. That was as close as it got.

Kyvon Davenport scored 26 for Memphis (14-10, 6-5 AAC) and was the difference in the game. With Josh Carlton in foul trouble, UConn had no one who could match Davenport, a 6-foot-8 senior, who shot 9-for-13.

“He’s one heck of a player,” Hurley said.

For UConn (13-11, 4-7), Tyler Polley scored a career-high 20 points, 15 in the second half, but had to sit for key stretches with foul trouble. Sidney Wilson, in his first career start, had 16 points, his career high, six rebounds and four blocks. Christian Vital had 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Smith also scored 13.

The Huskies, though, turned it over 18 times, 11 in the second half, and shot just 40.3 percent, but persevered through the mistakes and kept coming.

“The way we fought showed the character of our team,” Polley said. “We fought hard.”

Wilson, a redshirt freshman who sat out last season and missed the first seven games of this season serving a school suspension, was playing little, but a recent heart-to-heart talk with Hurley began turning things around. He played 37 minutes.

“Sid’s earned it with his attitude and his practice every day,” Hurley said. “He was being a baby 10 days ago, two weeks ago, but we had a great meeting and his whole practice mind-set has changed.”

Said Wilson, “He felt I was getting in my own way. He said he believes in me, believes in the talent I have, just work and stay in the gym. It feels like all the answers were in the gym.”

Tyler Harris’ jumper capped a 12-2 run to give Memphis a 20-9 lead, and Davenport hit two free throws to give Memphis, piling up a big edge in rebounds, its biggest lead of the half, 35-21 with 4:04 to go.

Then UConn started to take hold and rebound better. Wilson blocked a shot and took it coast-to-coast, delighting Hurley, and scored again on the next possession. When Vital hit a 3-pointer, UConn was within seven with 2 minutes to go. When the Huskies finished the half with a defensive stop, Hurley rushed out to the court clapping and ushered them into the locker room as if they were ahead. As it was, UConn trailed, 37-30.

“That first year, you’ve got to learn how to fight, learn how to compete,” Hurley said. “Again, that’s why I’ve got to be more animated. They need that battery in their back from their coach.”

The good feelings evaporated quickly once play resumed, the Huskies turning it over three times in a row to fuel a 9-0 Memphis run, bloating the Tigers’ lead to 46-30. At one point, Hurley went out of his way to smirk at a fan who had been riding him. No harm, no foul.

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“This is sports. We’re not in a board room,” Hurley said. “It’s emotional. It’s competitive. There’s intensity. I didn’t know where I was at that point. [Referee] Joe [Lindsey] did a good job of explaining where I’m allowed to go. It was funny. I don’t know what the fan said, but I kind of smirked at him, and he was good with it. I think he enjoyed it.”

Polley developed the hot hand, hitting three 3-point shots, the last of which pulled the Huskies to 56-48 with 10 1/2 minutes to play, and it turned out to be a fight to the finish.

“I know I’ve got to be more aggressive,” said Polley, who shot 7-for-12, including 4-for-7 on 3s. “I’ve got to shoot the ball and not let misses get to me. And when I do that, good things happen.”

When it was over, Hurley shook Memphis coach Penny Hardaway’s hand and predicted both teams will be in better positions when they meet in the future.

“You can’t miss it. Danny’s very energetic,” Hardaway said. “He’s going to talk the entire game. That’s how he coaches. It doesn’t bother me, because he’s a competitor. We both agreed there are going to be more competitive games between us, and today was one of those.”

Dom Amore can be reached at @damore@courant.com.

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