UConn rallies from 17 back to beat Memphis 65-62
Hartford — The American Athletic Conference Championship comes to the XL Center early next month. Signs are starting to indicate UConn could be a threat to repeat as tournament champion.
For the first time this season, UConn beat an upper tier AAC team, rallying from a 17-point first half deficit to post a 65-62 win over Memphis. It was the biggest comeback victory this season for the Huskies, who were down 13 to Tulane on Jan. 28 before winning.
"In this building, I think we can beat anyone...," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I'm not thinking about the tournament. I just want to get the best seed possible and see what happens."
The win vaulted the Huskies (13-12, 8-5) into fourth place and gave them a winning overall record for the first time this season. They've captured six of their last seven. At this point, they're in position to receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament.
Sophomore Jalen Adams sparked the turnaround, scoring 17 of his game-high 19 points in the second half. His nifty runner-up handed UConn a 61-60 lead — its first advantage since 8-6 — with 1:58 left. It put the Huskies ahead for good.
Adams missed practice time this week while battling the flu. The steady point guard played 38 minutes and finished with six assists and just two turnovers.
"For Jay to come out after not practicing ... and fight through it, that means a lot to our team," Ollie said.
In the final minute, UConn's defense dug in, forcing a shot clock violation with 27 seconds left. Freshman Christian Vital (13 points) broke free off an inbounds play and scored on a fast-break dunk for a 63-60 edge with 23 seconds remaining.
Memphis (18-9, 8-6) misfired on two potential game-tying 3-point attempts but converted from close range. UConn's Rodney Purvis closed out the game with breakaway basket.
"I'm so proud of this team," Ollie said. "They're resilient and keep fighting. ... Those last five minutes, that's UConn basketball. I think we held them to one basket — that was a dunk — and we kept them out of transition."
It didn't look good at halftime as UConn trailed 40-26. The Huskies had a 2-8 record this season when down at the break.
Instead of barking at his Huskies in the locker room, Ollie took a positive approach.
"Usually coach comes in there and he's yelling at us," Adams said. "Today, he came in there with a lot of confidence and said we're going to win this game. We've just got to limit them in transition and be more aggressive."
Early on, UConn looked nothing like the team that had won five of its last six games prior to Thursday.
After racing out to an 8-3 lead, UConn went cold and Memphis went on the attack. The Tigers pushed the pace, surged ahead with an 8-0 run and gradually extended the gap to 36-19.
The Huskies looked out of sync on offense for the first time in a few weeks. The red-hot Purvis, who came in shooting 52.1 percent in the last four games, misfired on his first five shots and didn't score a basket until the 2:38 mark.
UConn went just 10-for-30 from the field before intermission but made 56 percent (14-for-25) in the second half and finished at 43.6 percent. Memphis converted 41.2 percent overall, sinking just 8 of 24 in the second half.
The Tigers won the first meeting this season, 70-61, on Jan. 5. The Huskies trailed by as many as 20 and never recovered.
This time, UConn overcame a double-digit deficit. The comeback started with the Huskies down 49-34 with 14:42 remaining in the game.
But it took awhile before they surged ahead and earned a hard-fought win. Confidence built up from their recent play helped them complete the comeback.
"We've been building momentum for us to move forward," senior Kentan Facey said. "We know what we have to do to be relevant in the post-season so we're trying to take care of that right now."
Facey did a good job defending AAC player of the year candidate Dedric Lawson, who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds, both well under his averages of 19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds.
The Huskies now have a two-game road trip, visiting Temple on Sunday and Houston on Wednesday.
• In other news, USA Today reported that coach Kevin Ollie signed a new five-year deal worth $17.9 million in November. The contract doesn't have a buyout clause that was previously included.
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