UConn pulls off stunning rally to beat Tulsa, will meet SMU for AAC title
HARTFORD – Statistically, UConn’s defense of its national championship was all but over on Saturday.
The Huskies had played a dreadful game against Tulsa in the semifinals of the AAC Tournament, shooting under 30 percent, getting dominated on the boards, and scoring a mere 31 points. Only one item remained from making it official: the clock. There was still 4:14 left and they faced a nine-point deficit.
Sometimes, all championship teams need is the slimmest margin of hope. And this UConn squad, powered by another raucous backing in the XL Center stands, somehow found a way to keep its title defense alive.
Defensive specialist Phil Nolan, averaging 1.2 points a game, started the comeback with a tip-in. Rodney Purvis followed with a lay-up, and then Daniel Hamilton, shooting 0-for-8, nailed a three-pointer.
Fittingly, Ryan Boatright, less than 24 hours after his buzzer-beating heroics against Cincinnati, tied the game with a three, sending the 10,114 in attendance into an electric frenzy. After a foul shot by Shaquille Harrison gave the Golden Hurricane a one-point edge, Purvis drained a baseline jumper with 46 seconds remaining, and UConn led for the first time in the second half.
Boatright drained four throws to seal the win and yet another March for the ages goes on for the Huskies, who escaped with an unlikely 47-42 victory.
They will face No. 1 SMU Sunday in what’s sure to be a difficult task. But first, the focus is on another March win to be remembered.
This is a program that refuses to die without a fight. Look no further than 2011 when the Huskies won five games at the Big East Tournament and a national title, and then last season, when they came out of nowhere to capture another national crown.
The game-ending, and shocking, 16-2 run is no better evidence.
“I’m kind of lost for words, but one word that comes to mind is heart,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said. “And these guys just played with heart. We called a timeout with about 3:40 to go and everybody looked at each other and said we still believe and we’ve got to will ourselves to win. They made big shots, we kept getting steals, and that’s just a UConn tough victory.
“I love my guys. They didn’t falter, and we could’ve laid down, but said no,” he continued. “And then that sixth man (the crowd) stood up and gave us that jolt of energy and we just kept playing and grinding, and sooner or later we’re going to get you, and we got them at the end.”
That the Huskies had a chance in the end was a miracle in itself. Showing wear and tear after Friday’s physical battle, it was clear they were on fumes. They scored only 19 points in the first half and had a ridiculously low 28 points with only 6:35 left in the game.
Boatright, though, did have another strong game, with 21 points, including 5-of-9 on threes, and six rebounds. Even UConn’s most confident player could feel the tournament slipping away.
“It was ugly, I’m not going to lie," Boatright said. “When we got to the under-four minute timeout, we looked each other in the eye and said we're going to figure it out. We're going to dig ourselves out of this hole and win the game."
Purvis (11 points), a lock for the all-tournament team, continued his strong play, highlighted by his game-winning jumper. On the play, Omar Calhoun swung the ball to Purvis, who was standing in the left corner behind the three-point line. He then stepped in, and calmly sank the shot, even with 6-foot-9 Brandon Swannegan racing at him.
“I knew he was coming out at me since they were in a zone, but I was able to raise and hit the shot,” Purvis said. “I was kind of struggling from the field all night and it felt good for that to actually go in.”
Just as they did against Tulsa, the Huskies split the two regular season games versus SMU, with the home team winning each time.
The Mustangs clubbed UConn by 18 in Dallas back on Feb. 14. Two weeks ago this Sunday, the Huskies played their best game of the season, picking up an 81-73 win over SMU in Hartford. Purvis had a career-high 28 points and Boatright destroyed AAC Player of the Year Nic Moore in their head-to-head matchup, scoring 23 points, while holding Moore to nine on 3-of-13 shooting.
SMU, winners over Temple on Saturday, has the edge. The Mustangs had a bye in the first round and have played twice, while UConn has taken the floor three times, two of them exhausting wars.
No one feels sorry for fatigued teams this time of year, though. The Huskies are well aware.
“There’s no better way than to go through the best, and that’s what we’re going to have to go through to win a championship,” said Ollie, whose team will be NIT-bound if they lose. "It’s going to be a great game, great atmosphere, and I can say I would not want it anywhere else but the XL Center. Thank God we got it here and our crowd is going to stand up together with us and give us the victory that we need.
“This is what we believe in, and our time is now, and we’ve got 40 more minutes to get it done.”
Ollie’s floor leader is right on board.
“It’s going to be a fight,” noted Boatright. “They’re the best team in our conference for a reason. We’ve fought too hard to get where we’re at to lay down tomorrow. I truly believe we’re going to come out on top.”
It’s hard to doubt either now. Or their team. They have a habit of finding ways, no matter how bleak the situation is, come this time of year.