SMU handles UConn - again
HARTFORD – If there’s one sequence that’s defined the UConn-SMU series over the four-season history of the American Athletic Conference, it was the one at the end of the first half Saturday.
With the Huskies trailing by nine, and the largest crowd (13,553) of the season at the XL Center on their feet screaming for a stop, Shake Milton, who hit six three-pointers in the half, showed off his passing skills and connected with Ben Moore on an alley-oop to quiet the building.
UConn, like usual, was doing the chasing. And the Mustangs, like usual, had the answers, this time winning 69-61 to sweep the regular season series between the two schools. The Huskies did pull within five in the second half, but ran out of gas and are now 14-14 and 9-7 in AAC play.
SMU is 7-2 against the Huskies in the last four years, including a win in the 2015 AAC Tournament title game in Hartford. UConn’s two victories both came at home and it needed career performances from Rodney Purvis and Amida Brimah, respectively, to win those games.
On Saturday, Milton had 18 of his 20 points in the first half for the Mustangs, while Ben Moore (15 points, nine rebounds) and Semi Ojeleye (16 points) rounded out a balanced attack. SMU, truly, is a well-oiled machine and has won 11 in a row and is 26-4 (15-1 AAC).
“Give credit to SMU,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “In the first half, they really had us on our heels, especially with Shake Milton hitting all of those threes.”
The injury bug also hit the Huskies again when Jalen Adams sprained his left ankle at the end of the first half. He did not return and is scheduled to have an X-ray to determine the extent of the injury. Adams, with Kentan Facey (15 points, nine rebounds Saturday) right there, has been UConn’s most important player this season, but the Huskies did not quit and actually outscored SMU in the second half (31-28) without him.
"You can't get frustrated, that is part of life,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “I am just teaching them life lessons. Things happen, but we have to keep focus, keep control of what you can. Life is too short to be trying to control something you can't. Nobody wanted Jalen to get hurt, especially Jalen, but it happens."
This time, Purvis did not play well at home against SMU like he has historically, missing 14-of-18 shots (2-of-12 on three-pointers). Brimah fought hard in the paint, snagging 11 rebounds and blocking four shots, but finished with only one point.
One continuous bright spot, though, in this up-and-down season has been Christian Vital, who had another strong game with 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting. He also was the primary defender on Milton in the second half, swarming him on every possession and holding him to only one field goal.
“One player we fed off of today is CV,” Ollie said. “He gets on my last nerves sometimes when he takes those ill-advised shots, but if you want somebody to compete, I’ll be in the trenches with him - any day. I appreciate his effort.”
“Coach has been telling me that I’m not a freshman anymore. Those days are over,” added Vital. “It’s on me to help the guys out and be productive for the team.”
As noted throughout the last two months, UConn’s only way into the NCAA Tournament is by winning the AAC Tournament at the XL Center – no breaking news there. But the Huskies, despite their last two losses, have felt a lot better of themselves recently. Vital noted they are “100 percent” confident in themselves if they face SMU again. Fellow freshman Vance Jackson (14 points) took it to another level, saying, “I’m telling you it’s a guaranteed win when we play them next time. Our teammates believe, and our coach believes we’re going to get it done.”
Recent history does not bode well for UConn if these teams meet again. However, this has been a crazy season and if there was a time for something crazy to happen, it may just be in Hartford come March.