UConn claims critical win over SMU
HARTFORD – Daniel Hamilton remembers the feeling all too well. It was one of deflation, disappointment and a harsh ending.
With a chance to make the NCAA Tournament with a win, UConn, in its home arena at the XL Center, lost to SMU in the AAC Tournament title game last season. The defeat sent the Huskies to the dreaded NIT, and they were quickly ousted in the first round.
Matched up with the Mustangs 11 months later at the XL Center, UConn gained at least a little revenge Thursday night. And Hamilton was a major reason why, hitting two late shots and two free throws to help secure an important 68-62 victory over the 21st ranked team in the country.
“It hurt bad when they beat us,” remembers Hamilton, who finished with 14 points and six rebounds Thursday. “There were a lot of long faces, so we definitely wanted to get them back.”
To say the least, it’s been a struggle since the calendar hit 2016 for Hamilton. He’s shot only 33 percent from the field and has been front and center during the Huskies’ late game issues, in particular the two losses to Temple, the defeat at home to Cincinnati, and the disappointing collapse at Tulsa.
On Thursday, Hamilton bailed out UConn with a three at the end of the shot clock for a 64-55 lead, and with SMU furiously trying to rally, he made a leaner on the move to make it a four-point game with 48.9 seconds remaining. His two free throws with 17 seconds left iced the win.
Despite his shooting woes, the sophomore showed no hesitancy taking those big shots. Against a defense of SMU’s caliber, any indecisiveness will lead to a smothering response from the Mustangs.
How has he been able to keep positive?
“I just keep shooting,” Hamilton said. “A shooter is just going to keep shooting. You just need to continue to stay confident. I believe in what I work on in the gym, so I am going to continue to keep on shooting and just learn from every game.”
Meanwhile, the Huskies received one of the best games of Amida Brimah’s career, as the junior finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. Shonn Miller added 12 points and seven rebounds, and helped hold down previous UConn killer Markus Kennedy to only two points on 1-of-7 shooting.
"It's a beautiful thing when you compete and have fun. No one was worrying about minutes and everyone stepped up and played with relentless effort,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “Our defensive effort was great, they shot 50 percent most of the game and then we just started buckling down when there were winning moments."
Jalen Adams, only a freshman, held his own against the reigning AAC Player of the Year in Nic Moore. Driving to the hoop at will, Adams scored nine points off the bench, including one acrobatic lay-up in the second half that brought the UConn crowd to maybe its loudest point this season. He helped hold Moore to 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
“Jalen, wow, he was exciting,” Ollie said. “He gave us the person who could get by somebody and make something happen. He made some moves out there that were just fantastic. You can’t coach that.”
“I thought the little freshman point guard made some huge plays at the basket,” lamented SMU coach Larry Brown.
Sure, Thursday’s triumph is not the same as a postseason tournament win. But it’s a win the Huskies (19-7, 9-4 AAC) craved. With just one month remaining until the start of the NCAA Tournament, this, as sad as it may sound, was the first time UConn played host to a ranked team this season. Plus, it's no secret the NCAA Tournament committee has been very hard on the AAC.
Brown, whose team is barred from postseason play because of multiple violations, sees UConn as a team that can cause damage in March. He also sees no reason why they won’t be a tournament team.
“If you look at UConn’s schedule and what UConn’s done, maybe somebody at the NCAA will think teams in the American are worthy instead of always looking at the Power 5 and figuring out how eight or nine teams will get in,” Brown said. “I’ve looked at their schedule and it’s amazing. They’re getting better. That’s a tribute to the character of their coach and kids.”
With more efforts like Thursday’s, the Huskies should have no issues gaining a berth.
“It’s a step forward,” Ollie said. “When we fail, we fail. When we learn, we learn. I am very proud of them and they get all the glory.”
On the horizon Saturday is a trip to Cincinnati for the Huskies. Speaking of revenge, UConn dropped a one-point decision to the Bearcats on January 28 in Hartford.
“We’ll take care of Cincinnati if we play hard. That can really separate us right now, so we can’t get fooled off this and get drunk off a win against SMU,” Ollie said. “We got to make sure we stay sober and get in the lab and practice hard tomorrow and get on that flight and take care of business. (It’s a) quick turnaround, but that’s how quick the turnaround will be if we are fortunate to make the NCAA Tournament.”
This win puts UConn one step closer to that NCAA Tournament goal and, just as important, one step further away from the NIT, a destination where the returning Huskies hope to never see again.