STORRS– It was shaping up to be another heartbreaker.
It had all the makings of a brutal defeat. Blown leads, a dynamite opposing performance, and even a backbreaking three pointer from the left corner.
After having been defeated yet again in the final 10 seconds of a game earlier this week, this was an all too familiar feeling for the Huskies.
But this game was different.
Back at Gampel Pavilion for the first time in 2016, No. 23 UConn survived a buzzer beating miss to defeat Memphis, 81-78.
“Another close game, but we gutted it out,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “We had some toughness in the second half…We made the plays at the end of the game that we needed.”
In what may be the most intense game the Huskies (11-4, 2-1 American) have played all season, they made just enough plays down the stretch to get a must needed conference victory.
Graduate transfer Sterling Gibbs led the way, with a season high 26 points. He was lights out in the second half. When Memphis (10-5, 1-1 American) took a 75-74 lead with 52 seconds left, Ollie entrusted the fifth year point guard to get a bucket.
“We’re down one, we wanted to go for a two-for-one, I drew a quick play up for him. He drew the foul, made both free throws. He hit some big threes. I’m very proud of his execution,” Ollie said.
The free throws gave UConn an 76-75 lead, which they would hold onto for the win. Gibbs finished 7-11 from the field, 4-6 from three point range and 7-8 from the line.
“This was a special night for me, I helped the team get a big win,” Gibbs said. “(Coach Ollie) has put full trust in me, no matter if I’m making or missing shots. He’s put the ball in my hands and told me to go. It helps a lot that he has that trust in me.”
From the opening tip, the two teams went at each other. Memphis forward Shaq Goodwin was whistled for a foul 46 seconds into the game. He quickly picked up a second less than four minutes later. Goodwin, who entered averaging 12.5 points per game and 8.5 rebounds per game, was relegated to the bench for the remainder of the half.
Rodney Purvis stepped up for the Huskies in the first half. He was aggressive attacking the basket, finishing two layups through foul calls. He finished the half with 11 points.
Memphis threatened to take the game over early in the first half after a technical foul on Gibbs. Following the technical, the Tigers went on a 10-2 run to take a 18-11 lead at the 11:59 mark. They held the lead for the next seven minutes, trading the baskets with UConn. A 4-0 run by Gibbs pushed the Huskies ahead. They didn’t trail for the rest of the half. UConn went into the locker room with a 39-37 lead.
It was more of the same in the second half for these teams. UConn and Memphis entered the game having split their all-time series, 3-3. Tough, close games are the norm.
“Besides the one game in our conference tournament, every game with us and UConn has come down to the last minute or last possession. That’s just the way it’s been,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said.
The key factor for Memphis was Goodwin being able to play in the second half. Held to just four minutes of action in the first, the Tigers were being outplayed in the interior. Their senior forward turned the tide. He threw down a vicious dunk early in the half that set the tone for his team, cutting UConn’s lead to two. Goodwin would finish the half with 19 points and four rebounds.
UConn forward Kentan Facey, starting his fourth game in a row, was particularly active early in the period. He had four points, two offensive rebounds and three blocks in the first five minutes.
“Tonight, (our big guys) stepped up huge. Kentan had five blocks, he had some Amida (Brimah) blocks for us,” Ollie said. “That’s big time. If we can keep that up, play better defense, not foul as much, rebound better, we can win some games.”
UConn stretched their lead out to seven with 8:44 following a three pointer from Gibbs. Four straight made free throws from Memphis brought the score to 57-54. Then, the game flipped. Goodwin, playing with two fouls, was whistled for two more fouls within three seconds. He was subbed out briefly, but Pastner brought him back almost immediately. What followed was as impressive a display of work from a player with four fouls as I’ve ever seen.
From his return with 7:16 left until he fouled out with 1:09 to play, Goodwin scored 13 points. He did most of his damage from the foul line, sinking 7/8. Memphis was force-feeding him the ball. Facey, Nolan and Shonn Miller were instrumental in forcing Goodwin out of the game. Despite their struggles on defense, it was their physicality on the offensive end that drew Goodwin to foul out.
When he did foul out, Miller gave UConn a 74-72 lead with just over a minute to play. Then, a movie UConn fans saw twice last year, started. Memphis worked their offense for 13 seconds before Trashon Burrell found Avery Woodson open in the left corner. His three point attempt found the bottom of the net, giving the Tigers the lead with 52 seconds left.
Memphis did not go down without a fight following clutch free throws from Gibbs and Daniel Hamilton. Burrell hit a three pointer to cut bring Memphis within two. Hamilton split his next two free throw attempts, giving the Tigers the ball with 2.3 seconds to play. Caleb Wallingford was able to connect on a three-quarter court pass to Dedric Lawson, but he fumbled on the catch and was only able to throw up a prayer.
“We overcame all that stuff. We played tough. I’m very excited for my team on how they bounced back following a tough Temple loss,” Ollie said.
UConn is next in action Thursday when they travel to Tulsa.