UConn upsets Houston and advances to AAC semifinals
HARTFORD – In a season which has gone wrong in every way possible, UConn always had one glimmer of hope in its back pocket: the AAC Tournament, which carries an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, was scheduled this season for the XL Center.
Even then, as every injury and every loss piled up, that hope appeared to be dying more by the day. And still, it’s a longshot for the Huskies, but it’s still a shot after they rode hot shooting and a raucous crowd to a surprising 74-65 triumph over Houston in the AAC quarterfinals late Friday night.
They will now face Cincinnati, which destroyed them by 20 at Gampel Pavilion last week, in the semifinals today. But first, the Huskies will quickly celebrate a win that featured a 23-point, 5-assist effort from Jalen Adams, who is fighting through a left ankle sprain. Rodney Purvis had another strong game with 18 points and six rebounds for UConn, which shot an efficient 54.5 percent, including 8-of-17 from three.
“The thing that I really pride our guys on and admire about them, is they always stuck together and that's a beautiful thing,” UConn coach Kevin OIlie said. “So, we’ve have had some ups and downs. People say this about us, say that about us, but they didn't let it affect their locker room and I’m so very proud of these guys. We wanted to make it to the weekend. We're here at the weekend. Now we got two more games to win and we're not tired.”
The third-seeded Cougars, which swept the regular season series, jumped out to a 20-9 lead and it appeared UConn’s 2016-17 campaign was going to come to a quiet end. However, the Huskies quickly seized control, ending the first half on a 26-6 run and they never trailed again.
“Defense,” Purvis said. “We knew if we got stops, we were going to be able to get back in the game. Just try to run them off the three-point line, and we were able to do that on the defensive end. Once we got to the offensive end, we just executed and made the right plays.”
Freshmen Christian Vital and Vance Jackson also provided crucial contributions, combining for 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting and four three-pointers. They have shown no nerves in their first collegiate postseason.
“I was very proud of them,” Ollie said. “Once again it started with the defensive end. C.V. was great on the defensive end, stepping up. We were feeding off his energy. And then Vance was making some (big) shots.”
Adams, after struggling in 39 minutes against USF, went the distance Friday despite being far from 100 percent. He looked considerably better versus Houston, giving the Huskies more hope for today.
“I think I'm getting a lot more healthy game-by-game,” Adams said. “I think my teammates are doing a great job being able to present me with some possessions. I think the pull-up is there, and I’m just taking what the defense was giving me.”
The crowd, meanwhile, was small (7,365) but very effective, giving the Huskies needed energy and confusing Houston, too.
“You know, let's be honest, Connecticut did a great job tonight feeding off that crowd,” said Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, whose team was led by Rob Gray’s 25 points. “Their crowd was tremendous. That might have been the toughest crowd we played in front of all year outside of at SMU and at Cincinnati. I thought their kids, and that crowd, really buoyed them and they did a great job.”
“I remember a couple times I was trying to call plays and people couldn't hear it,” added Galen Robinson. “They played a major factor, gave them energy, and they fed off of it pretty well.”
UConn will need a similar effort from its players and fans today against a 28-4 Cincinnati team, which will be heavily favored. The Huskies have reached the AAC Tournament finals in each of the league’s first three years, beating Cincinnati every time on the way there. Their only chance to continue this season is a pretty big upset.
“We deserve this,” Ollie said. “We deserve being here on a weekend. We played hard. We played together and those guys are believing over there. So, we're going to go out and go hunting and hopefully we can do it all together and share the basketball.”
The Huskies showed Friday night they were still capable of that. And, for at least 17 hours, they still have some hope.