MEMPHIS – Locked in yet another defensive struggle with Cincinnati, the Huskies were the team with the tighter grip.
Tighter and tighter the Huskies defense played, as they held the top-seeded Bearcats without a point for nearly six minutes, and to only two points over a span of nearly 11 minutes.
And with that kind of space to work the Huskies offense made enough critical shots to knock off Cincinnati, 58-56, Friday night in the American Athletic Conference Tournament semifinals at the FedExForum.
"They play so hard, but I thought we just stood up to them," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. "We stayed in the middle of the ring – I'm going to keep saying that – and kept throwing punches."
Ryan Boatright scored 13 points, 11 in the second half, to help nudge the Huskies across the finish line. Boatright hit three-point goals on consecutive trips down the floor at the game-turning juncture, putting UConn ahead for good, and reliable Niels Giffey, who scored 11, hit a three to space the lead out to eight points.
Then UConn (26-7) had to hang on, a position in which it has found itself numerous times this season.
"It was a grind-it-out win," Ollie said. "That's why this team is so fun, they get down and dirty."
Cincinnati (27-6) edged back to within two points with under a minute to play, on Sean Kilpatrick's free throws, but Boatright hit two at the line on UConn's end. Jermaine Sanders hit a deep three to keep the Bearcats alive with 12.2 seconds left.
Napier missed the back end at the free throw line, giving Cincinnati one last shot to tie. But Sean Kilpatrick's shot from under the basket, with UConn's defensive presence all around, did not fall, and time expired, a dramatic finish.
"One of the guys, DeAndre [Daniels] or Amida [Brimah] contested his layup," Napier said, "I thought it was going to go down, but he definitely put too much spin on it. Our big guys were smacking the ball up in the air, and that buzzer sounded off."
Napier scored 15 and DeAndre Daniels had 14 points and nine rebounds, the Huskies winning the rebounding battle much of the game against the always physical Bearcats. And they beat them for the second time in a row. Kilpatrick scored 14 for Cincinnati, so his individual struggle with Napier, rivals for the league's player of the year award, was a wash – but Napier got the award, and his was the team advancing here.
Huge," Boatright said in the jubilant UConn locker room. "Huge, huge, huge."
As a result, the Huskies earned a chance to play for the first AAC title, and a rematch against Louisville, which tore through the early rounds of this tournament, beating Rutgers by 61 and Houston by 29. The defending national champs humiliated the Huskies by 33 in Louisville in the regular season finale last Saturday.
"We're going to come out and play harder," Daniels said. "We learned from the past, when we played against them. We're right where wanted to be, we wanted to come into this tournament and end up playing them again."
The championship game starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
The Huskies trailed 31-27 after a difficult first half, in which UConn turned the ball over 11 times, and by as much as seven early in the second half. But UConn tightened it up offensively, going the first nine minutes of the second half without a turnover, and defensively, holding the Bearcats 5:51 without a point.
"We were out there as one," Boatright said, "following the defensive schemes perfectly. Everyone was blitzing Kilpatrick, rotating, and Amida and the big guys were protecting the rim."
Brimah had four blocks and seven rebounds in his 21 minutes.
Boatright hit a three-point goal at the end of Cincinnati's scoreless stretch to give UConn the lead, 43-41, and he hit another after Cincinnati ended its drought to put the Huskies ahead 46-43 with 7:26 to play. After another sluggish stretch for both teams, Niels Giffey hit a three to make it 49-43 with 5:32.
Daniels started out with the hot hand for UConn, hitting a couple of open threes in the early going, the second of which gave the Huskies a 16-12 lead. Giffey, guarded more closely than he was against Memphis, when he scored 24, did get loose for a couple of baskets later in the half as UConn extended its lead to 21-16.
But Cincinnati's defense tightened and the Huskies' offense became stagnant, and then unhinged. Kevin Johnson hit a three-point shot and Justin Jackson scored six inside as the Bearcats' put together a 15-4 run to take the lead. Kilpatrick, though he had only four points in the half, had four steals and Cincinnati led at the break, 31-27.
Though UConn was 10-for-21 from the floor in the half, and maintained a 17-9 rebounding edge, 11 turnovers to Cincinnati's three was the difference at that point.
Said Ollie, "They were getting 'live' turnovers and scoring off that. But I was smiling – we had 11 turnovers and we were only down by four. I was smiling inside, I wasn't showing them."
The Huskies continued to look out of sync against the Bearcats' defense, but cut down the turnovers — none for the first nine minutes of the second half — and stayed close as the game slogged along. UConn made 15 of 18 free throws, Cincinnati 6-for-13, another very important stat. The Bearcars shot 37.9 percent, the Huskies a little better at 43.9. Rebounds were 29 apiece.
"We knew it was going to be a fight," Daniels said. "But we feel if we hit first and we rebound, we can beat anybody."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun