NEW YORK — It wasn’t the first time all game they seemed to do everything right.
Though the Hoosiers were rarely perfect against No. 5 University of Connecticut Sunday afternoon — they displayed plenty of worrying flaws in their 77-57 defeat — they appeared to find a spark close to midway through the second half.
With 12:32 remaining, and Indiana trailing by just 7 points, a breakthrough finally seemed imminent. The Hoosiers insatiably defended the Huskies around the perimeter, relentlessly switching on every pass and denying 3-point looks and entries into the paint.
Indiana fans — who traveled in droves to Madison Square Garden — rose to their feet, clamoring for the fierce defensive effort. But after senior guard Xavier Johnson took possession and immediately looked to burst up the court, the ball was tipped away and regained by UConn near Indiana’s basket.
Husky senior guard Tristen Newton, who paced both teams in scoring with 23 points, converted a layup and was fouled. He proceeded to miss his shot at the line, but the rebound was corralled by junior forward Samson Johnson, who gave it right back to Newton for another bucket.
“I thought that was the biggest play of the game,” head coach Mike Woodson said after the loss.
Though Indiana had ensuing moments where it appeared capable of climbing back, it deteriorated in the final six minutes. Much of the breakdown, and what led to UConn’s stable 7-plus point leads, stemmed from a disparity in rebounding.
The Huskies outrebounded the Hoosiers 44-22 overall, including a 15-4 advantage in offensive boards. Indiana’s backcourt — comprised of freshman Gabe Cupps, sophomores Kaleb Banks and CJ Gunn, junior Trey Galloway and Johnson — combined for merely four rebounds.
Johnson and Galloway, the Hoosiers’ starters, amounted to just one. The rebounding struggles aren’t novel. Indiana was outrebounded by Wright State University on Nov. 16, another instance where the Hoosiers’ guards failed to adequately pull down boards.
While Woodson preaches getting out in transition quickly, Galloway said the team’s guards need to do a better job of securing the rebounds first.
“We got to box out, get our man, it’s just the little stuff that we got to do,” Galloway said. “They out rebounded us like crazy, so I think if we can eliminate those, we’re right there.”
UConn head coach Dan Hurley heaped praise on his team’s rebounding efforts, noting it’s something they drill incessantly in practice. Newton finished the game with 11 rebounds and senior guard Cam Spencer had five.
It wasn’t just the backcourt, though. Indiana sophomore center Kel’el Ware, though grabbing eight rebounds and scoring 11 points, drew the ire of Woodson. Both of Ware’s field goals came on 3-pointers, and he was unable to establish a daunting presence in the interior.
His foe, UConn star sophomore center Donovan Clingan, grabbed seven rebounds on the offensive end, occasionally utilizing a physical edge over Ware.
“It’s like he didn’t want any parts of it tonight, and I told him that,” Woodson said of Ware’s performance in the paint. “He’s seven feet tall, he’s got to get in there and mix it up.”
With the stark contrast in rebounding came an equally bleak gap in second chance points. The Huskies posted 16 of them, compared to zero for Indiana. Newton was the primary beneficiary of rejuvenated UConn offensive possessions.
While Indiana’s defensive rotations on the perimeter didn’t plague it as noticeably as the first three games of the season — UConn shot 7-of-22 from 3-point range — the ability for the Huskies to frequently restart their offense did.
Even if they didn’t entirely reset, the Hoosiers interior defenders were often left flailing at UConn’s post-players and drawing fouls. Sophomore forward Malik Reneau, despite tallying a team-high 18 points, fouled out of the game with over seven minutes left.
Indiana’s lack of a real threat from 3-point range certainly added to the team’s struggles. The Hoosiers sunk just three of 13 shots from deep, two of which came from Ware. While their offensive efficiency remains a work in progress, their defense and physicality were expected to be a strong suit.
The rebounding numbers themselves were startling, but perhaps even more so, according to Woodson, was a distinct lack of fight.
“We got to get tougher,” Woodson said. “We’re not tough enough. Not yet.”