HARTFORD – UConn in March, you know the rest.
The UConn men’s basketball team took down No. 3 seed Houston, 74-65, in the quarterfinals of the 2017 American Athletic Conference Championship on Friday night at the XL Center. Jalen Adams led UConn with 23 points on 6-for-12 shooting, while Rodney Purvis added 18.
“I thought it was just a great game,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said after the game. “We played real, real disciplined basketball down the stretch, and I was very proud of that.”
A date with rival Cincinnati awaits tomorrow in the semifinals.
“They got us twice in the regular season, so we’re looking forward to it,” Adams said of the showdown with the Bearcats. “We just know gotta come out with energy, you know, we can’t be passive, we gotta be aggressive.”
After quickly scoring nine points to start Thursday’s win over USF, the UConn offense took a little while longer to lift off Friday against Houston. Christian Vital was the only Husky to score over the game’s first five minutes as Houston pushed out to an early 9-5 advantage.
With 14:32 remaining in the first half, Purvis crashed to the ground on a fast break after committing a charging foul, and went to the bench with trainer James Doran before heading to the locker room holding his head.
“I got the wind knocked out of me a little bit,” Purvis said.
The Huskies continued to struggle offensively, falling behind 13-5 with 12 minutes left in the first half before Purvis emerged from the locker room during a timeout. He sat at the scorer’s table waiting to check in as American scoring leader Rob Gray began to power Houston, scoring seven straight points to put the Cougars up 20-9.
Freshman forward Vance Jackson brought the pro-UConn crowd to their feet with a powerful tomahawk slam to cut Houston’s lead to 20-13, and that intensity from the crowd heightened after a few more huge plays from Husky freshmen. Jackson made one of them, a pretty turnaround jumper to trim the lead to 22-19 with 7:30 left in the half.
UConn grabbed a 24-22 lead on a transition finish (and the foul) from Purvis a few minutes later, his first points of the game after scoring a career-high 20 against USF the night before. That capped a crucial 15-2 run from UConn, a far cry from the Dec. 28 meeting between the two teams in Hartford, when the Huskies scored just 12 points in the entire first half.
“We got stops, we knew was going to be able to get back in the game,” Purvis said. “Just tried to run them off the 3-point line, and we was able to do that on the defensive end, and once we got to the offensive end we just made the right plays,” Purvis said of the big run.
For UConn, it got better from there. After a jumper from Gray tied the game at 24 apiece with 5:38 to go, the Cougars would not make a field goal for the remainder of the half. Baskets from Purvis, Adams and Vital gave UConn a 35-26 lead going into halftime, an extended 26-6 run for the Huskies after Houston went up by double digits.
It was far from a neutral court in Hartford.
“The crowd was amazing tonight. It was a huge part of us making that run in the first half, you know, just bringing that energy really helped us,” Purvis said.
But coming out of the halftime break, it was the Huskies’ turn to go cold as Houston put themselves right back into the game with seven straight points. UConn took the counter-punch well, continuing to ride Purvis’s steady postseason hand back to a nine-point edge with 11:49 left.
Again, a deviation from previous meetings; Houston trailed by 10 points at the half when these teams met in Texas on Feb. 22, and they came out to take the lead in just over six minutes of second-half action.
In Friday’s game, UConn continued to sustain their lead as the second half progressed, with senior center Amida Brimah providing important rim protection. Gray continued to propel the Cougars, hitting some twisty mid-range jumpers to keep his team within striking distance. With 7:42 left, the Huskies led 55-49.
Senior Kentan Facey finally got his first field goal to drop with 4:41 left, but after an Adams 3-pointer, Facey turned the ball over in the post with the XL Center crowd ready to explode. With 3:27 left, the Huskies were left clinging to a 62-55 lead.
Adams continued to make many of the huge offensive plays for UConn, playing again through an injury. He hit a pair of free throws to give UConn an eight-point edge with 2:14 left, pushing his total to 21 on the night, and he eventually finished with 18 in the second half.
“I was just taking open shots, my teammates were just finding me, and I was able to get great shots,” Adams said of his offensive performance in the second half.
The Cougars’ point guard, Galen Robinson Jr., matched Adams with a few huge shots of his own down the stretch, eventually finishing with 17 points, behind Gray’s game-leading 25.
However, Houston could never quite inch close enough, as UConn sat on their lead with successful free throw shooting down the stretch. The Huskies went 18-for-22 from the line Friday, helping them secure a 74-65 win.
Tomorrow, the challenge goes up another notch. UConn will face Cincinnati, who has beaten UConn by a combined 34 points this season in two meetings. On this stage, the Huskies have dominated the series: UConn has bounced Cincinnati in the American Athletic Conference Tournament each of the last three years.
“We gon’ go out, and we gon’ go hunt, and hopefully we can do it all together – play, share the basketball,” Ollie said. “If we don’t rebound, we lose, we’re going home. Hopefully they make the choice again, they definitely made the choice tonight.”
Tip-off between UConn and Cincinnati is scheduled for 5 p.m Saturday.