Louisville beats UConn 71-61 to win inaugural AAC title

UConn's Shabazz Napier, top, helps Ryan Boatright up off the court following a collision during the second half of Saturday night's American Athletic Conference tournament championship game in Memphis. The No. 21 Huskies lost to No. 5 Louisville 71-61.
UConn's Shabazz Napier, top, helps Ryan Boatright up off the court following a collision during the second half of Saturday night's American Athletic Conference tournament championship game in Memphis. The No. 21 Huskies lost to No. 5 Louisville 71-61. Mark Humphrey/AP Photo

Memphis, Tenn. — Any sour taste from a championship game defeat will quickly disappear.

UConn is still NCAA tournament-bound despite falling to Louisville, 71-61, in the inaugural American Athletic Conference tournament championship Saturday night at FedExForum.

The Huskies are in line for a NCAA tournament at-large bid when the field is announced later today on Selection Sunday.

"We can't dwell on this," junior Ryan Boatright said. "We came down here and got to the championship but failed to win the championship. We've got the NCAA tournament coming up and the main goal is to win a national championship."

"If we get to Dallas, everybody will forget about this loss."

The national champion may have played in the AAC final because Louisville looked like the team with potential to cut down the nets in Dallas, site of the Final Four.

For the third time this season, the fifth-ranked Cardinals beat the Huskies by double digits. Louisville (29-5) was a dominant force throughout the tournament, winning three games by an average 33.3 points on the way to securing an automatic bid.

No. 19 UConn (26-8) never recovered from a bad finish to the first half when a seven-point deficit turned into a 37-23 hole. The Huskies played much better in the second half but never climbed closer than 10. They had no answer for lethal inside-outside duo of Montrezl Harrell (22 points, 11 rebounds) and Russ Smith (19 points), the most outstanding player of the tournament.

"I was proud of our guys that we kept fighting," coach Kevin Ollie said. "Now we go into the next tournament. We want to win a national championship. I still believe in this team. We've got to clean some things up but I like our execution in the second half.

"We showed heart and competed and that's what I like and hopefully it carries over to the NCAA tournament."

UConn junior DeAndre Daniels scored 15 of his team-high 17 points in the second half. Senior Shabazz Napier added 16, earning a spot on the all-tournament team, and freshman Amida Brimah played well, finishing with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

Coming off consecutive tournament wins over ranked teams in Memphis and Cincinnati, UConn entered the game confident that the outcome would be different than the previous Saturday when it suffered a humbling 81-48 defeat at Louisville.

The Huskies ran into the same problem, though, trying to find a way to mount a consistent offensive attack against a relentless smothering zone. Louisville quickly closed down any openings and blitzed the top offensive weapons.

"The zone is definitely tough," Napier said. "They're not going to man up. They packed everything in and guys were just glued to myself, Niels (Giffey) and Boat off the ball."

The final two minutes of the first half really hurt UConn, which trailed by just six with three minutes, 28 seconds left.

Then Louisville went on one of its patented runs. Harrell's tip-in started a 10-2 spurt. After an offensive rebound, Terry Rozier buried a 3-pointer for the game's first double-digit lead (32-21). Louisville forced two turnovers, leading to Luke Hancock's three and Rozier's fast break layup.

A demoralized UConn jogged to the locker room staring at a 37-23 deficit. The Huskies had nine of their 14 turnovers in the first half.

The deficit was too much to recover from against a stingy defensive team.

"Any time you spot a team like Louisville 14 points it's hard to come back from," Ollie said.

Two of UConn's primary sources of offense - 3-point shooting and free throws - dried up. The Huskies went 4-for-16 from 3-point land and took only 13 free throws, sinking nine.

All will be forgotten now that the Huskies will be NCAA-bound for the first time in two years. Their focus already has shifted to the next stage.

"We fought all year and I think they're going to fight in the NCAA tournament," Ollie said.

g.keefe@theday.com

Louisville's Stephan Van Treese, left, tries to get rid of the basketball before UConn's Shabazz Napier can tie him up during Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game in Memphis. Louisville won 71-61.
Louisville's Stephan Van Treese, left, tries to get rid of the basketball before UConn's Shabazz Napier can tie him up during Saturday's American Athletic Conference title game in Memphis. Louisville won 71-61. Mark Humphrey/AP Photo
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