Huskies ousted by SMU in AAC title game, NIT-bound
HARTFORD – The final scene was an improbable one back in November: UConn getting a standing ovation after a loss at home that eliminated it from NCAA Tournament consideration.
Then again, it’s been an odd season full of twists and turns, especially this past weekend.
The Huskies’ last dash to steal an NCAA bid came to a crashing end Sunday as they fell to No. 1 SMU, 62-54, in the AAC Tournament championship before another UConn-heavy crowd at the XL Center.
In the end, UConn’s quest for four wins in four days was too much to ask, especially against a physical and big SMU squad. The better team clearly won, and as a result, the Huskies are off to the NIT.
After an uneasy regular season, they gave it their best shot in this tournament, though, crushing USF, beating Cincinnati at the buzzer, and stunning Tulsa with a late comeback. It just wasn’t enough.
UConn trailed by 17, sliced it to five with 3:22 left, but the Mustangs sealed the title with six straight free throws.
“I thought our guys fought again, we just can’t get down by 17 to a team like this, and to come back at the end, you’ve got to play perfect basketball,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said. “But I’m so proud of my guys. Nobody thought we would be in this championship game and for us to get here is a great accomplishment for them.”
The difference Sunday came down to two items.
First, SMU bullied the Huskies (20-14) around at the basket, winning the rebounding war, 43-30, with guard Sterling Brown leading the way with 12 boards. It had 12 second chance points and 26 points in the paint.
Markus Kennedy scored 15 points and won tournament MVP. Yanick Moreira (11 points, five rebounds) outplayed Amida Brimah (two points, two rebounds, foul trouble) and gave the Mustangs a 33-19 lead at the half on a forceful dunk off an alley-oop from Nic Moore in the final seconds.
Coming back from double digits, with the season on the line, was one thing against a finesse Tulsa team on Saturday. It was way too tall of an order versus the NCAA Tournament-bound Mustangs, who are now 27-6.
The other main cause was Ryan Boatright’s tough outing, punctuated by a 1-of-12 shooting performance (1-of-9 from three) and only seven points. He also went to the floor twice due to injuries that forced him out of action for five minutes. After carrying the Huskies to the finals, highlighted by the biggest shot of his career Friday against Cincinnati, he clearly ran out of steam.
One of the worst games of his career came at the worst possible time.
“I’m just disappointed in my play,” said Boatright, who fouled out with 45 seconds left and voiced his displeasure to the officials. “I missed a lot of shots that should be easy knock-down shots for me. This being my last game (in Hartford), I’m just disappointed that I played like that.
“You know, when I play well, I get the credit. When I play bad, I should take the blame,” the senior continued. “But I’m a man though, I can take it, I can take it on the chest. I’m going to move on and keep working.”
Rodney Purvis, voted to the All-Tournament team along with Boatright, kept the Huskies in the game single-handedly, scoring a career-high 29 points, including five three-pointers.
In his second year in the program, and first as an active player, he understands what UConn is all about: championships. And not NIT ones.
“I never want to witness this feeling again,” said Purvis, UConn's lone double figure scorer on Sunday. “I’m sure none of my teammates do, either. The main thing is getting off to a good start next year, trying to get our chemistry going a whole lot better, being together more, connecting earlier. Starting in the summer.”
Ollie sees the value of the NIT and the program has used this tournament to its advantage in the past. The Huskies won it in 1988 and went to the 1997 final four. The 1997 team used it as a building block and responded with an Elite Eight appearance and a national championship over the next two seasons, respectively.
“You lose, you go home. That's what you get out of it, it's experience,” said Ollie, whose team will face Arizona State on Wednesday in Storrs. “As a man, you grow up, you have experiences and your mama whoop you and you go back and you learn from it. Just like everything in life, you got the postseason. There's no next day. So these guys are learning from it. If it's the NIT or NCAA, they are going to learn from it and they are going to come back better from it.”
Why will they be motivated?
“You put on a UConn jersey. If you can't get geared up, then I don't want you on my team,” Ollie said bluntly. “It's important when you put that jersey on and that's my message.”
His players already hear him.
“We have to win the NIT. Period,” Purvis said.
Thanks to 14 losses, capped by their last ditch effort on Sunday, it’s all they have left.