Last April in Dallas, it was Connecticut cutting down the nets at Cowboys Stadium and celebrating an NCAA championship while Duke was home licking its wounds after a loss to Mercer in its tourney opener. But that is long ago and far away.
Without Shabazz Napier to lead the way, the Huskies have struggled this season. They suffered their fourth loss in the past five games and fell to .500 at 4-4 despite a scrappy effort in a 66-56 loss to the second-ranked Blue Devils (10-0) Thursday night at the IZOD Center.
Ryan Boatright, one of only two returning starters from the title team, admitted the defending champs face an uphill struggle to get back to the NCAAs. With Louisville moving from the American Athletic Conference to the Atlantic Coast Conference, strength of schedule might be an issue.
"It's pressure," Boatright said. "We need a signature win to solidify ourselves for a tournament run. Our conference is not as strong as it used to be."
Boatright carried a boatload of responsibility for UConn with 22 points and seven rebounds. Amida Brimah, who scored 40 points in the Huskies' win over Coppin State on Monday, was limited to 13 minutes by foul trouble and had no points and one rebound. Sophomore forward Kentan Facey had 14 points and nine rebounds and freshman Daniel Hamilton added 10 points.
Duke is young, too, starting three freshmen. But one is Jahlil Okafor, who is predicted by many to be the No. 1 pick in the next NBA draft. UConn double-teamed Okafor (12 points, eight rebounds) and forced the Blue Devils into 37.5 percent shooting, but point guard Tyus Jones had 21 points and got double-figures support from Justise Winslow (12 points), Amile Jefferson (11 points, 13 rebounds) and Quinn Cook (10 points).
Duke dominated the boards 40-29 and shot 25-for-34 from the free-throw line to 7-for-13 for UConn, which stayed in it by forcing 19 turnovers.
Asked about the disparity in free-throw attempts, Huskies coach Kevin Ollie said, "I have a big problem with it. They shot a lot of free throws. They made 25 and we made seven. You can't win like that."
Duke led 30-25 at halftime, but when UConn's Facey hit an easy layup to open the second half, Mike Krzyzewski called timeout and blistered his young players. UConn tied it at 30 moments later, but the Devils then took control with a 15-2 run for a 45-32 lead.
"We were out to lunch," Coach K said of his tongue-lashing. "We were in la-la land. I got annoyed with them, but they responded. That's the sign of a good team."
Connecticut cut the deficit to 62-56 with 2:01 left when Boatright hit a three-pointer. Okafor then missed a pair of foul shots, but Winslow got the putback to give the Devils the cushion they needed to survive.
Looking down the road, Boatright knows someone must emerge as a secondary scorer. "A lot of teams are going to double-team me," he said. "Coach said we need the next guard to make plays like I did for Shabazz last year."