HOUSTON – It didn't take long for Wooga Poplar to notice something was wrong offensively for Miami in the program's first Final Four game.
“Right off, the start of the game,” the guard said.
Miami earned its way to the Final Four in part by having one of the nation's best offenses, capable of scoring off the dribble or hitting from outside while boasting multiple options for hitting big shots. But that unit never got going in time to extend the Hurricanes' terrific postseason run to the final Monday night of the season.
The Hurricanes couldn't finish drives, missed jumpers and clanged 3-pointers off the rim in a frustrating first half that put them in a double-digit deficit against Connecticut. And they spent the rest of the night desperately trying to climb out of that hole, all the way to the finish in a 72-59 loss in Saturday night's national semifinals.
“Quite honestly, we were never in sync offensively,” Miami coach Jim Larrañaga said. “We struggled.”
The Hurricanes arrived at their first Final Four ranked fifth in KenPom for adjusted offensive efficiency by averaging 119.6 points per 100 possessions, and they boasted an offense with four different players who had scored 20 points at least three times this season.
Instead, Miami had a brutal start that set the tone for the rest of the game — and what was left of the season for the Atlantic Coast Conference's regular-season co-champion.
The Hurricanes (29-8) made just 9 of 36 shots (25%) in the opening 20 minutes, which kept them from building any momentum or putting much pressure on UConn. That included forward Norchad Omier having a scoreless first half despite playing nearly 16 minutes.
Poplar sensed too much 1-on-1 play instead of driving and kicking out for jumpers, or moving the ball to create seams between defenders. Nijel Pack felt it too, the lack of flow and connected rhythm that had helped the Hurricanes score 85 points in their second-round NCAA win against Indiana, 89 against defensive-minded 1-seed Houston and 88 against Texas in the Elite Eight.
It was obvious enough that Larrañaga said the halftime message was simple: Share. The. Ball.
“It's kind of crazy, we’ve got so much talent on this team and so much ability from each person,” said Pack, sitting at his locker with a towel draped over his head. "Sometimes you think you’ve got an advantage on the matchup and you try to do things and sometimes it just doesn’t work for you in that way.
“It’s never somebody trying to be selfish, but sometimes you just can’t get the shot you thought you could get.”
Miami missed 11 of 12 shots to start the game and didn't have a field goal pop the net for the first seven-plus minutes considering its first basket came on a goaltending call. Then, after one flurry, the Hurricanes somehow saw it get worse with a 1-for-13 stretch.
“We got some clean looks, we just didn't make them,” said Poplar, who went scoreless on 0-for-7 shooting after hitting double figures in six of his last eight games. “The majority of the shots were harder.”
Alex Karaban’s 3-pointer at the horn pushed UConn to a 37-24 lead at halftime, setting the stage for the Hurricanes to spend the rest of the night in catch-up mode.
The Hurricanes pushed the ball in transition and off turnovers to build some momentum after halftime. But they never got closer than eight points, briefly, after halftime and never seriously threatened to derail what has been a dominant five-game run for the Huskies in the NCAAs.
By the end of the night, Miami had shot just 32% while having just Isaiah Wong (15 points) and Jordan Miller (11) hit double figures as the Hurricanes' run ran out of steam.
It ended up as the Hurricanes' lowest scoring output of the season, and a bumpy finish to a memorable March run.
“It happens,” Poplar said, forcing a smile as he sat in his locker. “I'm mad that it happened at this time.”
Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at https://twitter.com/aaronbeardap
AP March Madness coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/march-madness and bracket: https://apnews.com/hub/ncaa-mens-bracket and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-basketball-poll and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25