Can struggling UConn fix its issues in time to salvage its season?

UConn coach Kevin Ollie and guard Jalen Adams (AP)
UConn coach Kevin Ollie and guard Jalen Adams (AP)

LOS ANGELES — In jeopardy of suffering a third straight loss at the hands of a small-conference minnow, UConn instead offered faint hope that this season may yet be salvageable.

The Huskies fought back from a six-point second-half deficit Thursday night at Loyola Marymount, survived a nerve-rattling final possession and escaped with a 65-62 road win.

When sophomore point guard Jalen Adams missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with six seconds remaining, it gave LMU a final chance to force overtime with a 3-pointer. Senior Brandon Brown got a clean look from the right wing, but cold-shooting point guard’s 3-point attempt bounced harmlessly off the rim.

“We came out here knowing that we were 0-2,” UConn freshman Christian Vital said. “This was a must-win game for us. As a team, we really needed this one.”

The phrase “must-win” is typically reserved for a marquee game in March, not an innocuous one in mid-November, yet Vital certainly did not overstate UConn’s urgency.

The Huskies were already 0-2 for the first time since 1968 after disastrous home losses against Wagner and Northeastern. They could not afford another unforgivable loss against an LMU team projected to finish in the bottom half of the WCC with the loaded Maui Invitational tipping off Monday and non-conference games against Syracuse, Ohio State and Auburn looming on the horizon.

Adding to the challenge ahead for UConn is the very real possibility that its top freshman could miss some or all of those games. McDonald’s All-American Alterique Gilbert dislocated his left shoulder vying for a loose ball late in the first half against LMU and watched the second half from the end of the bench with his arm in a sling.

Gilbert will undergo tests in Maui to determine the extent of the injury and a timetable for his return. It’s the same shoulder that required surgery last spring after the standout guard injured it at the Jordan Brand Classic.

“He’s a tough kid,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “It’s unfortunate that he had the surgery and it popped out again, but we’ll see what the X-Rays say and if he can go or not. But the No. 1 thing is his health. We’re not going to put him back on the court if he’s not healthy, if he’s not 100 percent.”

Gilbert’s injury adds to the uncertainty surrounding whether UConn can fix its issues in time to live up to preseason expectations. Thanks to the return of three of last year’s top six players and the arrival of a decorated crop of newcomers, the Huskies began the season 18th in the AP Top 25 and co-favorites with Cincinnati to win the American Athletic Conference.

One prior issue UConn took strides toward correcting against LMU was its rebounding. Amida Brimah and Kentan Facey both controlled the defensive glass and created numerous second-chance opportunities on the offensive boards.

The problem that persists is UConn’s inability to score consistently against a set defense. The Huskies so far lack either reliable shooters or a go-to scorer in the post, enabling opponents to either zone or play a compact man-to-man designed to shut down driving lanes.

Senior wing Rodney Purvis was UConn’s leading scorer and top 3-point shooter last season, but his confidence appears to be dwindling after missing 14 of his first 16 attempts from behind the arc so far this year. Neither Brimah nor Facey or fellow forward Steven Enoch appear to have developed offensively as much as anticipated.

VCU transfer Terry Larrier has been a bright spot as a replacement for do-it-all forward Daniel Hamilton and Vital has shown potential as an outside shooter off the bench, but heralded point guard Jalen Adams hasn’t yet evolved into the offensive catalyst many expected him to become this season. He’s averaging 11 points and 4.0 assists but shooting well under 40 percent from the field, struggling to finish at the rim and making too many poor decisions with the ball in his hands.

There were times against LMU when UConn showed patience, attacked the soft spots in the 2-3 zone and generated open looks. There were also long stretches in the middle of the game when the Huskies forced ill-advised jump shots early in the shot clock or over-dribbled in traffic and turned the ball over.

Ollie tried to alleviate those issues by starting a small, quick lineup and calling for defensive pressure in hopes of generating fast-break opportunities. The Huskies’ array of slashing guards can be lethal in the open court and Brimah runs the floor well for a 7-foot big man, but accelerating the tempo and converting those opportunities remains an issue.

“I thought we had too many turnovers when we had the opportunity to break and then we missed some layups again,” Ollie said. “We just have to go back to the drawing board. We’re a fast-break team. We didn’t get too many fast-break opportunities tonight, but I thought we did a better job rebounding, which was the one thing we wanted to key on.”

The persistence and togetherness UConn showed in the face of adversity Thursday night were good signs, but now the caliber of opponent increases dramatically. The Huskies will open with Oklahoma State in Maui and could see North Carolina, Wisconsin, Oregon or Georgetown later in the tournament.

Can the Huskies build on their escape at LMU and dig their way out of their early hole? Or will that hole deepen by the time they return home?

Relief on his face and an ice pack on his back late Thursday night, Vital said he and his teammates have renewed confidence after finally tasting victory.

Said Vital, “I definitely think we’re going to build off this. It’s our first win of the season and our streak is one win. We want to keep that going.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!