HARTFORD— They say that March marks the beginning of a new season, where players rise to the occasion and all past miscues are forgotten. Rodney Purvis took that to heart, scoring a career-high 30 points with no turnovers to propel the UConn men’s basketball team past USF 77-66.
“If anybody follows Purv, he played some of his best basketball in this tournament and in the NCAA Tournament,” head coach Kevin Ollie said of Purvis. “When we needed a big play, he came up with it. I was so proud of him taking a defensive challenge… he did a great job, took the challenge and played a wonderful game on the offensive and defensive end.”
On a night where the Huskies (15-16) shot just 40.7 percent from the field, Purvis rose to the occasion in what was potentially his last game ever in a Husky uniform. He went 9-for-17 from the floor overall, including 3-for-6 from 3-point range and a near-perfect 9-for-10 from the free throw line.
“It’s definitely not the first thing I’m thinking about is my career coming to an end, so I’m just trying to get a win. That’s not even in my mind,” Purvis said. “I just know what’s at stake. We just locked in as a team.”
His shots proved to be at decisive moments. In the first half, he anchored UConn’s 19-8 run to close out the half with seven points. He scored 13 out of UConn’s first 17 points entering the second half and sunk two crucial 3-pointers late in the game, both at points in the game where USF had gotten the score within two points.
With tonight’s win, UConn moves to 9-2 all-time in the American Athletic Conference tournament, and has won five tournament games in a row dating back to last year.
“I like our grit. When we need a stop, when we need a big-time defensive effort and defensive plays, our guys stepped up, so I really appreciate that. But we have to play a better game to advance in this tournament,” Ollie said.
UConn wasted no time getting off to a hot start, scoring nine straight points before the Bulls (7-23) flipped the momentum with a 7-0 run out of a timeout. USF took a brief one-point lead early in the first half, but after some back-and-forth play, the Huskies were able to extend it back to seven with five minutes to go after a Purvis 3-pointer that sent USF into a timeout with 5:05 to go.
Following the timeout, UConn held the Bulls scoreless from the floor. The Huskies were propelled by three perfect trips to the charity stripe, and went a near-perfect 17-for-18 in the first 20 minutes.
It was an ugly shooting performance from UConn until nearly 15 minutes had passed. Carried by Purvis’s 13 points and Christian Vital’s nine, the Huskies turned a two-point lead into a 42-29 score at the half. USF didn’t fare well either, shooting at a clip of 38.5 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from 3-point range, while going 4-for-7 from the free throw line.
The Bulls fought back at the start of the second half, thanks to the efforts of Michael Bibby. After scoring only four points in the first half, he notched eight points in the first four minutes to bring USF within five. After going back up by nine, UConn’s defense deteriorated, allowing three straight USF layups.
“I give credit to USF. They played a great game. [Geno] Thorpe was tremendous. We got a 14-point lead and kind of got lackluster there and had a couple turnovers. We’ve got to learn and grow from it,” Ollie said.
With their shooting from the field severely lacking, the Huskies had to rely on strong play in the paint to keep them afloat. Their first 12 points to kick off the half came either in the paint of from the free throw line, with Purvis leading the way.
Each time UConn would go up by more than a possession, the Bulls would take away their momentum with a 3-pointer or a layup to get them back within a basket. USF rode on the back of Thorpe, who exploded in the second half for 12 points, sinking a crucial 3-pointer to pull the Bulls within two before fouling out with two minutes to go.
UConn finished 27-for-33 from the free throw line.
“You can probably ask any coach in America, it’s always the plan to attack the basket and get to the free throw line. You can control the game like that. You can get them in foul trouble,” Ollie said. “Our biggest foul was against Thorpe. That’s taking it at him, getting him into foul trouble and getting him out of the game. I think the last three minutes gave us a real boost and a real advantage.”
With 1:20 to go, the Huskies found themselves leading by a narrow 70-66 margin. After recording a key defensive stop, Purvis hit his most important shot all night, an uncontested 3-pointer and turned UConn’s four-point lead into a seven-point lead with 0:35 to go.
The Huskies finished on a 10-1 run to solidify a 77-66 win. Purvis led the Huskies in scoring with 30 points, and both Amida Brimah and Vital finished in double-digits, scoring 13 and 11 points, respectively. Thorpe led the Bulls with 23 points.
UConn will take on No.3 Houston tomorrow night at 9 p.m. with their sights set on revenge and their sixth-straight tournament win.