NEW YORK — After trailing most of the first half, Indiana men’s basketball was making a late push to make the halftime deficit manageable. With three minutes and 15 seconds remaining in the frame, sophomore guard CJ Gunn found himself wide open in the corner with a chance to cut the deficit to 30-24. Gunn missed and 19 seconds later, University of Connecticut graduate guard Cam Spencer connected from deep for a 33-21 lead.
The 6-point swing was a huge gut punch to the Hoosiers, and it summarized the difference in guard play between Indiana and No. 5 UConn. The Huskies bullied the Hoosiers for a 77-57 win in the opening game of the Empire Classic on Sunday in Madison Square Garden.
It was an ugly start to the game on several fronts, but Indiana suffered the most when senior guard Xavier Johnson picked up his second foul just over two minutes into the game. The Hoosiers lost their leader for a majority of the half, and the consequences showed.
Indiana hung around in the first 12 minutes, but it was all thanks to its front court. Sophomores forward Malik Reneau and center Kel’el Ware scored 13 of the Hoosiers’ first 15 points, picking up the slack for a struggling backcourt.
“I think (we need) better ball movement,” Indiana head coach Mike Woodson said postgame. “I got to get them in better position to be a better offense.”
With the offense struggling, Woodson took the risk by re-inserting Johnson into the game trailing 16-11 with a shade over 10 minutes to go in the frame. Johnson’s appearance didn’t last long, as an arm extending while driving resulted in an offensive foul — his third infraction — just 38 seconds after he came in. He didn’t play the rest of the half.
What prompted Woodson’s dicey substitution, and what hurt Indiana after Johnson’s departure, was UConn’s guard play. Led by graduate Tristen Newton with some help from Spencer and senior Hassan Diarra, the Huskies’ guards outscored the Hoosiers’ backcourt 20-6 in the first half.
Indiana’s guards struggled on both sides of the ball without Johnson, allowing Newton to do as he pleased while not producing offensively. Gunn added 4 points off the bench in the frame, but senior Trey Galloway only contributed 2, and freshman Gabe Cupps didn’t score in 10 minutes.
“We expect the other players to come in and pick us up and sustain what we’re trying to do,” Woodson said.
Whatever halftime adjustments Indiana made for UConn’s backcourt were not effective. The trio of Huskies came out firing, scoring at all three levels, drawing fouls and dicing up the Hoosiers’ perimeter defense. Even with more playing time from Johnson, Indiana couldn’t prevent the onslaught.
“Their offense and their flow, the way they moved the ball is really good,” Galloway said. “It was tough guarding them. They made shots.”
Indiana constantly toyed with a comeback effort, cutting it as close as 7 points multiple times in the second half. However, it was never able to get any closer, and a few UConn scoring outbursts put victory out of reach.
The Huskies’ backcourt contributed to a balanced effort in the first half but had a complete takeover in the final frame. It scored 35 of UConn’s 40 second-period points.
The Hoosiers’ guards improved later in the game but not enough to rival the Huskies. Galloway scored 8 points in the second half, Johnson added 4 points and Gunn put up 3 of his own, but Woodson acknowledged who won that battle.
“Galloway battled, he didn’t play too bad,” Woodson said. “But their guards outplayed our guards.”
Indiana’s 3-point shooting was again problematic — as it has been all season. The Hoosiers shot 3-of-13 from deep at a 23.1% clip, and two of those makes came from Ware.
UConn head coach Dan Hurley emphasized his team’s defensive priorities on the interior, citing Indiana’s lack of range.
“The 3-point line is not something, at this point, that’s a strength for them,” Hurley said.
Moving forward, more consistent play on both sides could give the Hoosiers a better chance of competing with high-level opposition. Offensively, it has yet to show some life from beyond the arc to create floor spacing inside. Defensively, it hasn’t shown the ability to hound the perimeter and prevent easy drives to the paint like Newton and company did Sunday.
Indiana doesn’t get a break from the action, as it plays the second leg of the Empire Classic at 4:30 p.m. Monday. The Hoosiers will face the loser of the University of Texas and the University of Louisville.