ORLANDO, Fla. — Through the rollercoaster of a season that 2015-16 has been, the UConn men’s basketball team has stuck together and battled through adversity multiple times.
The Huskies came down to Orlando glued to the bubble of the NCAA tournament, needing a good showing in the conference tournament to make the field of 68 teams.
Knowing that they needed at least one win, the Huskies went to work.
Sunday capped off an incredible run by UConn as the Huskies beat Memphis on Sunday in the American Athletic Conference Championship game, 72-58, in front of 7,990 at the Amway Center to clinch its first conference title since 2011.
After winning a quadruple overtime thriller against Cincinnati on Friday and beating Temple Saturday, the Huskies left no doubt about their tournament status, clinching the conference’s automatic bid.
“It was just a great game,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “ They deserved this championship. We did a lot of things in the offseason to create this momentum and just continue to pull each other together.”
Daniel Hamilton, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, scored 11 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and had six assists to cap off his incredible weekend to lead the Huskies.
UConn (23-10) had four other players score in double figures: Shonn Miller and Sterling Gibbs scored 13 each, Rodney Purvis had 12 and Omar Calhoun scored 10 off the bench.
Memphis (19-15) was fighting for its season, and needed to win the conference tournament to make the NCAA tournament.
As UConn led at half by 13, Memphis was in desperation mode. The Tigers made just six field goals in the first half and shot 23 percent. Nothing was going right. It took UConn a bit to get going, but once they did the offense started to flow like it did in the first two games of the tournament.
But with their season on the line, Memphis fought back.
The Tigers went on a 13-1 run midway through the second half to cut UConn’s lead to 38-34. Memphis’ Ricky Tarrant scored six points in that run. The Huskies were held without a field goal for 7 minutes and 32 minutes.
“Well, we’ve had leads before and the team that we’re playing will make a run,” Miller said. “We just wanted to stay mentally and physically tough and know that we needed a key stop at whatever point in time in the game.”
But after Ollie called a timeout, UConn went on a 10-0 run that eventually blossomed to 15-2 to extend the lead to 55-38. Gibbs and Calhoun both made three-pointers in that stretch.
“Gibbs hit that big three coming out of that timeout,” Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. “That was a big shot. It was a long-range shot, too. So you got to give him credit. We were down four and we just could not get over that hump.”
The Huskies made just two threes in the first half, but six in the second half.
UConn needed a big effort from its bench Sunday. Amida Brimah, Phil Nolan and Miller all found themselves in foul trouble early on, leaving the door open for Kentan Facey and Steve Enoch, who hadn’t played in the first two games of the tournament.
Facey contributed early on, scoring all four of his points in the first half. Enoch hit a mid-range jump shot and was able to defend some of the bigger players on Memphis.
The UConn bench outscored Memphis’ bench 22-4.
“The bench was definitely important,” Calhoun said. “Every game coach tells us to stay ready, tells everyone to stay ready, we’re going to need everyone.”
Dedric Lawson led all scorers with 21 points and 11 rebounds. Tarrant finished with 11 points.
UConn finished shooting 46 percent from the field. Memphis shot 38 percent.
Heading into the NCAA tournament, UConn is playing its best basketball of the year, according to Ollie. UConn earned a No. 9 seed and will play Colorado on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.
“Last year we came here (conference tournament) and we came up short,” Hamilton said. “So this year we just wanted to make sure we won it. Especially, we wanted to emphasize today, make sure we came in and was focused and not take Memphis lightly. We came out with a lot of intensity, and we came out with a victory.”