Quick-starting Huskies advance to AAC semis
Memphis — UConn's first taste of postseason in two years turned out to be a sweet experience.
The Huskies thoroughly enjoyed every morsel of their impressive 72-53 rout of Memphis in the American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinal Thursday night at FedExForum.
Not even the support of a raucous home crowd could help keep the fifth-seeded Tigers (23-9) in the game.
"It feels great," senior Shabazz Napier of his team's return to postseason. "It's been awhile. This is where a lot of teams show how good they are."
Fourth-seeded UConn (25-7) advances to play top-seeded Cincinnati (27-5) in the semifinals at approximately 9:30 tonight on ESPN2.
"We're just going to make the best out of it," senior Niels Giffey said of the postseason. "It's so much fun to play with this great team. … We just want to make it a good run."
If Giffey plays as well as he did Thursday, the Huskies should be in great shape. He recorded career highs for points (24) and 3-pointers (6) and also added a game-high nine rebounds.
Napier finished with 11 points and moved into sixth place on the school's all-time scoring list. Junior DeAndre Daniels had 13 points while junior Ryan Boatright added 11 points and six assists.
A slumbering offense that generated an average of 56.8 points and 36 percent from the field in the previous five games roared to life. The Huskies must like shooting at FedExForum, because it converted 53 percent from the field after sinking 57 percent in an 83-73 win at Memphis on Jan. 16. They went 10-for-20 from 3-point range and also reached their pre-game goal of at least 15 assists.
And the defense did its job, limiting the Tigers to a season-low 26.4 percent, only eight transition points and 18 points in the paint.
"Our defense was phenomenal from the tap," Ollie said. "We didn't give them anything easy."
It was UConn's third win over Memphis this season. The Huskies last accomplished that triple feat against Georgetown during the 2004-05 season.
Thursday's game was safely in hand by the midway point of the second half. UConn never trailed after the first four minutes and extended a 14-point halftime lead to 60-37 in the first nine minutes.
The crowd gasped as a wide open Giffey lined up another 3-pointer and then groaned when he buried it for a 60-37 lead with 11:08 left. He came into the game shooting 50 percent from bonus land.
Memphis called timeout.
"It's kind of astounding," Napier said of Memphis leaving Giffey open. "He's one of the best shooters in the country. We'll take it every time. He's going to score easy. Those are just warmup shots for him."
Giffey got a kick out of the crowd's reaction.
"It was funny," said Giffey, who hit 6 of 8 from 3-point land. "It was just amusing to me after awhile."
UConn led by as many as 25 and cruised to the finish line.
From the start, the Huskies executed their defensive game plan to near perfection. Memphis had more turnovers (8) than field goals (6-for-23) in the first half.
UConn was particularly sharp from 3-point land, sinking 7 of 12. Boatright's 3-pointer pushed the lead to 41-27 at the break. Giffey buried four 3-pointers and scored 14 points, including nine straight at one point.
Memphis' strategy of doubling Napier and Boatright off the pick-and-roll failed miserably. The Tigers also floundered offensively, testing the home crowd's patience, and shot just 54 percent (20-for-37) from the foul line overall.
Even when the Huskies made mistakes, the Tigers rarely capitalized. When sophomore Phil Nolan picked up a technical foul for slapping the backboard after a dunk late in the first half, Michael Dixon Jr. hit just one of two free throws.
Foul trouble was a factor in the first half, as sophomore Shaq Goodwin, Memphis' best big man, played just five minutes. For the third straight game against UConn, he never really was a factor, finishing with eight points.
Ollie made two changes to the starting lineup, replacing Lasan Kromah and Amida Brimah with Giffey and Nolan. He also went deep into his bench in the early going.
The Huskies continued to roll no matter the personnel on the floor.
"(UConn) played great," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said. "They deserved to win. We stunk, no other way to look at it."
Now UConn faces a Cincinnati team that escaped with a 61-58 win over ninth-seeded Central Florida in the first game of Thursday evening's doubleheader.
During the regular season, UConn lost at Cincinnati, 63-58, on Feb. 6 playing without Daniels, and won 51-45 at home on March 1.
"It's going to be a war," Ollie said. "We've got to have that heart and have that hustle, the same thing that we had tonight, to beat a great team like Cincinnati."
The game also will pit two of the best players in the country in Napier, the AAC player of the year, and Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick.
Kilpatrick stated on Wednesday that he planned on taking out his disappointment over not winning the top player award on his opponents.
"The thing that's so worrying, he cares so much about the MVP," Napier said. "I don't care about that. If he wants it, he can have it. I'm not into individual accolades… I'm here for my team and I'm trying to play against Cincinnati, that's it."
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