STORRS - Forget the hot sauce, maybe these Huskies donâ€™t have the stomach for free throws.
The UConn menâ€™s basketball team has won seven times in nine tries this season. But its two losses have something in common: painful missed opportunities at the foul line.
Against Creighton back on Dec. 20, it was UConn point guard R.J. Cole missing a pair of free throws in the waning seconds that gave the visiting Blue Jays a chance to get to overtime, where they pulled out a 76-74 victory.
On Monday it was UConn forward Tyrese Martin who missed two from the line in the final seconds - one make would have tied the game, two would have given his team the lead - in what turned into a 74-70 loss to St. Johnâ€™s.
â€śAs a coach youâ€™re pretty helpless on that one,â€ť UConn coach Dan Hurley said regarding his teamâ€™s free throw struggles. â€śA lot of that is routine and having the stomach to make them.â€ť
There have been stomach issues aplenty in UConn nation the last few weeks.
The UConn fan base, not to mention Hurley, many other UConn coaches, alumni and the schoolâ€™s athletic director, have over the past few weeks helped raise money for the Husky Ticket Project, a non-profit organization that distributes tickets for UConn games to youth organizations in Connecticut, by doing shots of hot sauce and posting the videos of them doing so on social media.
Monday against the Johnnies, the Tabasco just wasnâ€™t flowing properly through some veins.
It wasnâ€™t just Martin, of course. UConn went 15-of-23 from the line as a team. Cole himself had a pair of 1-for-2 trips down the stretch.
â€śI missed two free throws, too. I split my 1-and-1â€™s,â€ť Cole said.
If all of Coleâ€™s and all of Martinâ€™s freebies go down, undoubtedly a different outcome would have resulted.
â€śWhen we should have been able to close that game out, we were 1-for-2, 1-for-2, 1-for-2, 0-for-2,â€ť Hurley said.
Hurley, not sporting his new â€śCaptain Brutalityâ€ť T-shirt, was nonetheless feeling the pain immediately after the defeat.
â€śBrutal loss,â€ť Hurley said. â€śThey were tougher than us, especially down the stretch. â€¦ And we obviously shot ourselves in the foot quite a bit there.â€ť
Letâ€™s be clear. Missed free throws are not what is keeping a good UConn team from being a great UConn team.
The absence of star guard James Bouknight is in large part doing that. Bouknight will be out for perhaps three more weeks and the Huskies will have to try and survive and advance without him.
Making free throws will go a long way to help those efforts.
And in some ways, no practice will change their performance. Yes, teams can shoot free throws for hours upon hours, but at some level itâ€™s an intestinal fortitude issue that doesnâ€™t change with repetitive motion exercises.
â€śThatâ€™s an individual thing. Thatâ€™s a routine. Thatâ€™s having the nerves and the confidence to step up and make them,â€ť Hurley said. â€śItâ€™s wanting to be there.â€ť
St. Johnâ€™s, which has played well at times this season but who really didnâ€™t have much to show for it, appeared on Monday that it wanted to be here.
And head coach Mike Anderson, a Nolan Richardson protĂ©gĂ© who has adopted his mentorâ€™s defensive strategy of â€ś40 minutes of hell,â€ť was extremely pleased with his playersâ€™ collective stomachs on this occasion.
â€śI thought we left our guts out on the floor today,â€ť Anderson said.
And some of that had to do with making free throws.
â€śThey (UConn) had guys go to the line and miss a few free throws. We had guys go to the line and make a couple free throws,â€ť Anderson said.
Some part of free throw shooting is contagious. A player makes a few and it emboldens the next team member who steps to the line. Confidence is just as contagious as other things currently going around.
UConn, which hangs its hat on defense, also had some defensive lapses that appeared infectious.
â€śOur inability to guard the ball,â€ť Hurley said. â€śPosh Alexander just destroyed us off the dribble.â€ť
Maybe if the Huskies dribble a little more Cholula down their chins, it will help their nerves at the line.