Tighter and tighter, the Huskies defense played Friday, holding the top-seeded Bearcats without a point for nearly six minutes, and to only two points over a span of nearly 11 minutes.
And with that kind of space to work, the Huskies offense made enough critical shots, three open three-point goals down the stretch, and knocked off Cincinnati 58-56 in the American Athletic Conferencetournament semifinals at the FedExForum.
Ryan Boatright scored 13 points, 11 in the second half, to nudge the Huskies across the finish line. Boatright hit three-point goals on consecutive trips down the floor at the game-turning juncture, putting UConn ahead for good, and reliable Niels Giffey, who scored 11, hit a three to space the lead out to eight points.
Then UConn (26-7) had to hang on, a position in which it has found itself numerous times this season.
Cincinnati (27-6) edged back within two points with less than minute to play, on Sean Kilpatrick’s free throws, but Boatright hit two at the line on UConn’s end. Jermaine Sanders hit a deep three to keep the Bearcats alive with 12.2 seconds left.
Shabazz Napier missed the back end at the free throw line, giving Cincinnati one last shot to tie. But Kilpatrick’s shot from under the basket did not fall, and time expired in a dramatic finish
Napier scored 15 and DeAndre Daniels had 14 points and nine rebounds, and the Huskies won the rebounding battle against the always physical Bearcats. And they beat them for the second time in a row. Kilpatrick scored 12 for Cincinnati, so his individual battle with Napier, rivals for the league’s player of the year award, was a wash — but Napier got the award, and his was the team advancing.
As a result, the Huskies earned a chance to play for the first AAC title, and a rematch against Louisville, which tore through the early rounds of this tournament, beating Rutgers by 61 and Houston by 29. The defending national champions humiliated the Huskies by 33 in Louisville in the regular season finale last Saturday, and one week later UConn can redeem itself.
The championship game starts at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
The Huskies trailed 31-27 after a difficult first half, in which UConn turned the ball over 11 times, and by as much as seven early in the second half. But UConn tightened it up offensively, going the first nine minutes of the second half without a turnover, and defensively, holding the Bearcats without a point for 5:51 to regain control of the pace.
Boatright hit a three-point goal at the end of that stretch to give UConn the lead, 43-41, and he hit another after Cincinnati ended its drought to put the Huskies ahead 46-43 with 7:26 to play. After another sluggish stretch for both teams, Giffey hit a three to make it 49-43 with 5:32.
Daniels started out with the hot hand for UConn in the first half, hitting a couple of open threes in the early going, the second of which gave the Huskies a 16-12 lead.
Giffey, guarded more closely than he was against Memphis, did get loose for a couple of baskets later in the half as UConn extended its lead to 21-16, helped by an early 11-4 edge in rebounds.
But Cincinnati’s defensive grip tightened and the Huskies’ offense became stagnant, and then unhinged. Kevin Johnson hit a three-point shot and Justin Jackson scored six inside as the Bearcats put together a 15-4 run to take the lead. Kilpatrick, although he had only four points in the half, had four steals, and Cincinnati led at the break, 31-27.
Although UConn was 10-for-21 from the floor in the half, and maintained a 17-9 rebounding edge, the Huskies’ 11 turnovers to Cincinnati’s three was the difference at that point. Daniels had 10 points and Napier had eight. Along the way Napier passed Corny Thompson for fifth in career scoring in UConn history.
The Huskies continued to look out of sync against the Bearcats’ defense, but cut down the turnovers — none for the first nine minutes of the second half — and stayed close as the game slogged along. Boatright drew a foul at the perimeter and hit three at the line, and Giffey, when the game seemed to be getting away, hit a three-pointer from the wing to get UConn back within four. Napier drew a foul and made two to get the Huskies witin 41-39 with 12:03 to play.
UConn got three stops in a row, and finally broke through, Boatright hitting an open three to put the Huskies ahead 43-41 with 9:36 left.
By Dom Amore, Hartford Courant