After UConn’s 30-point win against South Florida on Thursday, the Huskies had a great opportunity to get a signature win against a good Houston team in front of their home crowd Sunday afternoon.
With a big away game looming against SMU on Thursday, winning Sunday would have built some momentum going into the final two games of the season and also the conference tournament. With the way this season has gone, it also would have been a solid resume-building win for UConn’s NCAA tournament hopes.
But UConn has been inconsistent for most of this season, and the inconsistency continued at Gampel Pavilion Sunday afternoon. Houston shot 52 percent from the field and the Cougars fought to a 75-68 victory in front of 9,667.
“There’s pressure all the time but when you have pressure like this, it’s a great privilege to play in front of a crowd like this and kind of cement yourself in the NCAA tournament,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “It would have been a great victory for us and [to] keep the momentum going down to SMU [Thursday] and you just let it slip through your fingers. And that’s very, very hard to swallow.”
Houston’s 52 percent shooting from the field was the highest UConn has let an opponent shoot this season. Houston cashed in 18 points in transition off 13 UConn turnovers. The Huskies came into Sunday’s game allowing opponents to shoot just 37 percent.
“I don’t know where our defense went,’ Ollie said. “It was all transition. It was a tough loss and hopefully our guys feel this.”
Houston’s Damyean Dotson led all scorers with 22 points (9 of 15 shooting), 14 rebounds and three assists.
UConn (20-9, 10-6 the American) had two nine-point leads in the first half at 24-15 and again at 31-22, but they allowed both to slip.
“Early in the game I felt we got a little discombobulated but I knew that Connecticut at home would come out and have a huge initial surge,” Houston coach Kelvin Sampson said.
As the half came to a close, Houston went on an 8-0 run to cut UConn’s lead to 33-32. The Huskies were held scoreless for the final three minutes of the half.
“I think confidence, more than anything else. Our locker room was…there was a lot of enthusiasm in the locker room,” Sampson said. “I felt like if we could come out [in the second half] and get the ball to the third side we’re going to get shots. It’s just a matter of whether we make them or not.”
The Cougars did.
Houston (21-8, 11-6 the American) opened the second half on a 12-4 run, a 20-4 run dating back to the first half to open up its largest lead, 44-37. They made five of their first eight shots.
The game’s pace picked up in the middle of the second half. Daniel Hamilton was able to lead the Huskies back. Hamilton made a three and then Amida Brimah finished an alley-oop to cut Houston’s lead to 51-50.
Houston’s Devonta Pollard scored seven straight points for the Cougars at one point to give them a 58-56 lead with 7:51 to go.
The most surprising thing about Sunday’s game was how the Huskies played on the defensive end of the court. Houston scored 18 points in transition. Late in the game and UConn up by three, the Huskies collapsed on two straight possessions.
Ronnie Johnson drove to the rim himself for a layup in transition without any UConn player near the rim to contest it. And the next possession, Danrad Knowles had an easy dunk in the lane off a nice pass from Johnson to put Houston up 63-62.
“Our discipline offensively was good,” Sampson said. “I thought our poise in transition was good. The ball moved.”
Hamilton added: “In the second half we didn’t get back in transition and we didn’t communicate or talk to each other.”
UConn would get the lead back one more time, but the final dagger was a Dotson three to put the Cougars up 72-66 with 1:08 left. UConn actually defended that possession well, but Dotson made a tough, contested shot as the shot clock was winding down.
“He dominated the whole game,” Ollie said of Dotson.
Dotson’s 14 rebounds tied a career high and he finished one point off of his career-high of 23. Rob Gray Jr., who came into Sunday’s game as the leading scorer in the American with 17.3 points per game, was held to just two points.
Pollard finished with 17 and Johnson added 10 points and seven assists.
UConn only had two players score in double figures. Hamilton finished with 20 points and seven rebounds and Brimah had 10 points and seven rebounds.
When it came to the end, Houston was able to execute and UConn wasn’t. The Cougars made their last five shots and the Huskies missed seven of their last nine. Houston scored 44 points in the second half and shot 60 percent from the field.
“We had a lot of guys make big baskets,” Sampson said. “There is believability about that has to go on within the confines of your team to win on the road and I think that’s one of the things we have.”