HARTFORD – There’s Rodney Purvis, and then there’s the American Athletic Conference tournament version of Purvis.
The UConn senior has dominated on this stage before, and he did it again Thursday night at the XL Center. Purvis scored a career-high 30 points to drag the Huskies past conference-worst South Florida and into a second-round game Friday against Houston.
“He plays some of his best basketball in this tournament,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said of Purvis after the game. “When we needed a big play, he came up with it.”
Purvis has played in eight games in this tournament in his career, and he is averaging 16.8 points in those game, of which UConn has won seven.
“Going into the game, we know what’s at stake, every team. None of us want our season to end right now,” Purvis said. “That was just our mindset going into the night.”
It wasn’t just the scoring, although there was plenty of that – three 3-pointers, nine free throws and a couple of thunderous dunks, to be exact. Purvis contributed on the boards, pulling down six rebounds, and he played another impactful game on the defensive end, finishing with three steals and two blocks in 39 minutes.
He made the game’s defining defensive play, forcing USF guard and leading scorer Geno Thorpe to turn the ball over with about two minutes left and the Bulls trailing by four points. Immediately after that turnover, Thorpe fouled out, ending his prolific day at 23 points, six assists and eight turnovers.
“Coach kept telling me to guard [Thorpe], so I just had to guard him, and I was just able to work them a little bit. Pick them up a little bit. Get up under him, get some steals, get some blocks,” Purvis said.
His coach, of course, appreciated the effort on defense.
“I was so proud of him taking a defensive challenge, and that’s what we’ve been trying to get him and convey to him, because he’s probably one of the best defensive players laterally moving his feet,” Ollie said.
Purvis followed up that defensive play with a dagger 3-pointer to put UConn up by seven points with 35 seconds left, which brought out one of the biggest cheers of the night from what was essentially a pro-UConn crowd in Hartford. The record book will say it was a neutral site, but make no mistake, this was a home game, and Purvis plays well in those.
“To hear those guys in the stands going crazy for us is definitely a momentum boost for us, and we’re just happy to have the best fans in the world,” Purvis said.
The senior guard staved off the end of his career Thursday, and the challenge will only get tougher as the tournament progresses. Friday night, UConn takes on the tournament’s No. 3 seed, Houston. The Cougars have beaten the Huskies in both meetings between the two teams this season, including a 62-46 win in Hartford on Dec. 28.
One game at a time.
“Like I said, the season ending – coming into the game knowing this could be the last game is definitely not in the back of my mind. I just know what’s at stake. We just locked in as a team,” Purvis said.