Two down, two to go.
After an unlikely 74-65 win over Houston on Friday night at the XL Center in Hartford, the UConn men’s basketball team will continue to play on. Their NCAA tournament dreams rest on winning the American Athletic Conference Championship, which they won a season ago.
The climb will be get much more difficult Saturday, when UConn meets No. 15 Cincinnati in the semifinal.
“We’re looking forward to the match-up. They got us twice in the regular season, so we’re looking forward to it. We know we have to come out with energy, we can’t be passive, we have to be aggressive right out of the gate,” UConn guard Jalen Adams said after the Houston win Friday night.
Senior guard Rodney Purvis went straight to the point.
“I just think we have to be tough. That’s it,” Purvis said.
Normally these two teams play tight, low-scoring games in which both are spent at the final buzzer. Not this year. Cincinnati won 82-68 at home on Feb. 4, and then came to Gampel Pavilion last weekend and won 67-47 on the Huskies’ Senior Day. UConn fell behind quickly in both games. The Bearcats have been far better, and have their sights set on a deep NCAA tournament run.
UConn’s trying to gut through four games in four days, after a season of misfortune, and just get there.
“We deserve this. All if the stuff we’ve been through this year. I mean those guys are not tired right now. We deserve being here on a weekend. We played hard. We played together and them guys believing over there,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said after Friday’s game.
Houston is a good team, but Cincinnati is a whole different beast. The Bearcats are 28-4, with a 16-2 record in conference play.
Just a week ago, they faced a pro-UConn crowd in Storrs, as they will on a neutral court Saturday in Hartford, and shut them down almost immediately. Cincinnati jumped out to a 21-7 advantage over UConn at Gampel Pavilion, powered by their offensive rebounding, eventually finishing with 17 offensive boards in a 67-47 rout.
The Huskies will absolutely have to fix that Saturday if they hope to have any chance.
“The only thing I’m going to write on the board tomorrow is rebounding,” Ollie said Friday. “That’s pretty much the game. If we don’t rebound, we’re losing, so, and we’re going home.”
And UConn will need another pair of strong performances from Adams and Purvis, who combined for 41 points on 23 shots to beat Houston. Adams did plenty of damage from the free throw line, hitting 9-of-10, as the Huskies went 18-for-22 from the charity stripe as a team.
“The one thing I do like is us getting to the free throw line,” Ollie said Friday. “We want to keep focusing on attacking, attacking, attacking. We can’t settle for threes, we can’t settle for the contested three, especially tomorrow. You don’t do that against Cincinnati. So we want to get the ball inside.”
UConn will be playing with house money, in their own house. On the one-year anniversary of Adams’ buzzer-beating half-court shot to send a game between these two teams to a fourth overtime and keep the Huskies’ 2016 NCAA tournament hopes alive, we could see another chapter added to this continuously fertile rivalry.
“We wanted to make it to the weekend. We’re here at the weekend. Now we got two more games to win and we’re not tired,” Ollie said.