It was happening again.
The UConn men’s basketball team created separation, extended their lead to nine points in crunch time, and then the familiar malaise set in.
The ball got stuck offensively and No. 21 SMU was catching fire.
After seeing this team consistently lack a killer instinct at the end of games, it was fair to expect the same result.
Not on Thursday, though. UConn was able to hold on for a 68-62 victory behind an excellent performance from junior center Amida Brimah.
“It’s a step forward. It’s not coaching. It’s our players taking advantage of situations,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said of his team’s ability to close. “My guys taking the right plays, being poised, staying in the moment. That’s what it’s all about. So when we fail, we fail, when we learn, we learn and I think our guys learned and are stepping up and doing a great job. I’m very proud of them and they get all the glory.”
Brimah led the team in scoring and rebounds, 16 points and 8 boards. Shonn Miller chipped in 12 points and 7 rebounds, and Daniel Hamilton had 14 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists.
“That was a real great battle. I thought everybody competed,” Ollie said. “It seems like we’ve been in this situation the last three games and the last two we’ve stepped up.”
The Mustangs (21-4, 9-4 the American) were able to cut the deficit to two with 1:13 left in the game following a jumper from senior guard Nic Moore. Down the other side, Hamilton knocked down a jump shot of his own to make the score 66-62. UConn held SMU scoreless for the remainder of the game. Hamilton sealed the victory with two free throws in the final 20 seconds.
UConn’s (19-7, 9-4 the American) late game execution, an area they have struggled with, was near flawless. They made five of their final seven field goal attempts and were able to get clean looks at the basket.
A key reason? Freshman guard Jalen Adams.
“Jalen was, he was exciting out there. Just giving us that person that can get by someone and make something happen. He made some moves out there that was fantastic and you can’t coach that,” Ollie said.
Adams finished with 9 points off the bench.
The argument can be made that this was the most complete game the Huskies have played. Offensively and defensively, it looked like a team that was firing on all cylinders, creating a frenzy among the 15,564 in attendance at the XL Center.
“The atmosphere was great, the crowd was tremendous,” SMU head coach Larry Brown said. “I thought the little freshmen point guard (Adams) made some huge plays at the basket. I thought that might have been the difference. You would expect that from Purvis, or Gibbs, or Calhoun.”
UConn shot 44 percent from the field, including 52 percent in the second half, outscored SMU in the paint and on second chance points, and held SMU’s best player, Nic Moore, to just 14 points.
“(We wanted to) deny him the ball, face guard him, everything. On some of the screens, we were switching, just trying to give him some different looks so he wouldn’t be comfortable,” Adams said on the strategy of containing Moore.
Only seven SMU players saw minutes in the game. Their lack of depth was something UConn was able to exploit.
“It’s hard because I’m playing guys too many minutes and when you play in this kind of environment, with their kind of depth, it’s tough not to be proud of your team,” Brown said. “I don’t want to make an excuse…this is the deck we’ve been handed…I’m in awe of my kids.”
This was truly a back-and-forth contest between the two top programs in the American Athletic Conference. The score was level at halftime, 31 all, and neither team was able to take a lead larger than nine. UConn and SMU, coached by men who have a long-standing respect and love for each other, have given fans a number of great battles.
Make no mistake. This was the biggest win of UConn’s season. Knocking off a ranked team, one that has given them immense trouble since the formation of the American Athletic Conference, will help a UConn team that has been searching for a marquee resume booster.
“I’m happy for them they stuck with it,” Ollie said. “Everyone could have started rowing in their own direction but everyone stayed rowing in the right direction, for UConn and I’m so proud of them.”