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College Basketball

Invincibility Only Lasts Until It All Goes Wrong

Cam Spencer #12, Alex Karaban #11, Donovan Clingan #32 and Hassan Diarra #10 of the Connecticut Huskies
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Even if your preferred "best men's team in the country" is Houston's brick wall or Purdue's Edeyocentrism, UConn's record heading into Tuesday night's action was not something anyone wanted to mess with: 14 straight wins against their Big East brethren, enough to earn the No. 1 ranking in the AP poll, punctuated by fresh beatdowns of Georgetown, DePaul, and a great Marquette squad that could barely stay within 30 points. Thanks to incredible efficiency from their wing shooters, a maestro at point guard in Tristen Newton, and a younger big in Donovan Clingan who's been able to fill the shoes of last year's championship centerpiece Adama Sanogo, UConn was college basketball's red-hot big bad.

But then they had to go to Omaha, where No. 15 Creighton knocked them for a loop. The Huskies had done fine on their own court against the Bluejays, winning 62-48 last month, but after a quick start for the visitors on Wednesday, the underdogs ran them off the road. At halftime, Creighton's lead was an imposing 43-29, and it got even more dire in the second, growing all the way to 23 and, despite a stab at a UConn comeback, eventually ending at 85-66.

It was a charmed night for Creighton, who executed their gameplan perfectly. The Bluejays are a team that never wants to get beat by the three or the one, and they didn't here, holding UConn to 3-of-16 beyond the arc and 13 attempts at the foul line. (The Jays, meanwhile, shot 50 percent on their 14 makes from deep.) When Creighton was on offense, they used gorgeous ball movement to take advantage of a Huskies team that maybe struggled to keep its energy up through what's been a travel-heavy stretch. The Huskies were forced to play whack-a-mole, fruitlessly, with point guard Steven Ashworth on the perimeter as Creighton went on a run in the first half. Jasen Green, usually a non-factor freshman, provided a spark off the bench with a couple of big threes and one awesome chasedown block. Ryan Kalkbrenner—the 7-foot-1 center who, thanks to both discipline and stamina, rarely sits—produced a frenzy of picks, dunks and rejections, all while picking up just two fouls in 40 minutes.

And that's not even mentioning the Bluejays' two leading scorers this season, Baylor Scheierman and Trey Alexander, who combined for 28 on this night and shore up a core four that can all play upwards of 35 minutes a game. Here's an especially pretty example of this group's chemistry, where an anxious attempt to double Scheierman in the corner during the pick and roll puts Kalkbrenner on the highway to Slamsville.

“It kind of felt like we just ran into a buzz saw there,” UConn coach Danny Hurley said afterward. "We knew this was a dangerous game, one of the better teams in the country. But we didn't expect this to happen.”

With four games left in the regular season, the momentum built by Hurley's team over its 14-game win streak can't quite be replicated. But as the Huskies ready themselves for back-to-back home games spread out over the next week-and-a-half, it's a chance to breathe, recollect, and work on what they'll do next time when they encounter a similarly experienced, feisty, and accurate group like Creighton's. It's nothing to be ashamed of—Purdue's going through that same psychological rebuild after their loss to Ohio State—but fumbling the high of being the hottest team in the sport has to take a chunk out of them that can only be replaced on the fly. For UConn, this is an opportunity for growth. But for every other tournament team who watched, the lesson is a little different: The Huskies can bleed.

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