UConn falls short in comeback bid, loses to Michigan State in Battle 4 Atlantis tournament

Photo of David Borges

Another 11-point deficit out of the gates. Another valiant comeback effort by UConn.

This time, the comeback couldn’t be completed.

Michigan State scored the final nine points of the game to pull off a comeback of its own and beat UConn in a Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal game, 64-60 on Thursday at Imperial Arena in the Bahamas.

Tipping off just 19 hours after winning a grueling, double-overtime battle over Auburn, UConn (5-1) was slow out of the gates again. Just under 11 minutes into the game, Michigan State (5-1) led 21-10 — the exact same lead Auburn held about 9 1/2minutes into Wednesday’s contest.

Unlike Wednesday, when they stormed back to take as much as a 15-point lead, the 22nd-ranked Huskies gradually chipped away, trailing by eight at halftime and ultimately taking their first lead of the game (49-48) on an R.J. Cole 3-pointer with 7:48 to play.

The Huskies extended their lead to as much as six (57-51), and led 60-55 after an Andre Jackson free throw with 1:41 left.

But UConn wouldn’t score again, missing its final four shots, capped by a Jalen Gaffney air-ball 3-pointer with five seconds left. Meanwhile, Cole fouled out with 30 seconds left. Tyrese Martin also committed a costly turnover and foul with 18 seconds left that led to a pair of Malik Hall free throws.

Adama Sanogo finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds for the Huskies, Martin added 16 and 12 in a team-high 36 minutes despite being a game-time decision due to a sore wrist, Cole netted 10 points and Jackson finished with nine points and nine boards.

It certainly didn’t help that UConn was without the services of grad forward Isaiah Whaley, who was taking a day of rest after fainting on the bench at the end of Wednesday’s win over Auburn. Hurley said Whaley had gone through a walk-through and shootaround, and that he wasn’t informed that Whaley wouldn’t play until about an hour before tip-off.

“He shouldn’t have played,” Hurley said. “(But) I wish we could have got the medical people involved (on Wednesday) and declare him out, because then we would have had a little bit more time to prepare for him being out, which obviously hurts us. Especially against a Big Ten team.”

Hurley wasn’t sure of Whaley’s status for Friday, when the Huskies will play 3-3 VCU at 1:30 p.m. in their final game of the three-day tournament. Michigan State will play sixth-ranked Baylor for the championship at 11 a.m.

“We expected to be playing (Friday) in the championship game,” Hurley mused. “Big picture in the season, it’s a great learning experience for us. But UConn comes to tournaments, they expect to play in the championship game.”

Here’s what we learned from UConn’s first loss of the season:


UConn has now gotten off to slow starts in each of its last four games. That wasn’t an issue against the likes of Coppin State or Binghamton, but against both Auburn and Michigan State in the Battle 4 Atlantis, the Huskies found themselves down by identical, 21-10 scores out of the chute.

UConn missed its first seven shots and 15 of its first 18 on Thursday.

Tinker with the starting lineup? Well, Hurley did on Thursday out of necessity — with Isaiah Whaley taking a day of rest after fainting at the end of Wednesday’s double-overtime win over Auburn, junior Akok Akok got his first start of the season.

The result was another slow start. Certainly, fatigue played a role on Thursday.

“I think (Michigan State) started with more energy,” Hurley noted. “I think that was a little bit expected. You can put the recovery boots on and drink as many Gatorades as you want, when you have the type of game we played (Wednesday), it takes you a little bit to wake up.”


The Huskies have had trouble closing out both opponents in this tournament. On Wednesday, they allowed Auburn to rally back from a 15-point second-half deficit to send the game to overtime, and squandered a four-point lead with 22 seconds remaining in the first OT.

Against the Spartans, a five-point lead with less than two minutes left seemed safe. But costly turnovers and fouls did the Huskies in.

“We had those couple of plays that unnerved us there, again,” Hurley noted. “To beat a Michigan State team, you can’t make those kind of mistakes down the stretch.”

Bottom line: the Huskies need to eliminate their late-game mistakes and find a consistent threat (Sanogo) to go to when they need a basket.


The downfall of UConn’s 2020-21 season came with 5:07 left in a Big East semifinal game against Creighton, when Cole left the game with a concussion. The Huskies, who had looked invincible in their prior five games and led by five at the time, looked lost without Cole, lost the game and, a week later, got bounced from the NCAA tournament first round by Maryland.

On Thursday, Cole fouled out with 30 seconds left — his second foul in a 37-second span — with the Huskies trailing by a point. Down three with five seconds left, Cole’s replacement, Gaffney, threw up an air-ball 3-pointer, the Spartans grabbed the rebound and sealed the victory.

Oh, and about that fifth foul on Cole ...

“That’s a tough call,” Hurley noted. “It’s a jump-ball. Listen, we lost because we made a lot of mistakes and Michigan State didn’t. They made the plays. But, yeah ... I don’t understand what happened there.”


Akok got his first start since Feb. 16, 2020, when he tore his left Achilles tendon in the first minute of a game against Memphis in Hartford. It didn’t go very well, however.

The 6-foot-9 junior went scoreless, attempting just one shot in 17 minutes, and struggled defensively against the Spartans’ thicker frontcourt. It was the second straight scoreless outing for Akok, who played 11 minutes off the bench on Wednesday.

Clearly, the Huskies need more from a player who was once one of the top shot-blockers in the nation.


UConn was hoping to play three high-major, NCAA tournament-worthy teams this week. Even winning two out of three would be a big boon, after playing the worst schedule in the country their first four games.

Now, the Huskies won’t get that chance. VCU, which has lost to Wagner and Chattanooga already this season, doesn’t figure to be much of a NET-booster when the season’s all said and done. Of course, a loss to the Rams would be even worse.

“We’ve got to be ready to go, we’ve got to take care of business (Friday),” said Hurley. “Coming out here, we’re not going to get exactly what we want. But we’d better leave here 2-1.”