Second-half run rescues Huskies
Tampa — Down six points at halftime, UConn's Shabazz Napier gave his teammates an earful.
Then, the high-scoring guard and backcourt mate Ryan Boatright went out and led the Huskies past South Florida.
"I was just letting guys know I'm not satisfied with where we're at, but they understand I'm just passionate," Napier said after he and Boatright shrugged off slow starts to lead an 18-0 second-run that helped UConn come from behind to beat USF 61-56 for the Huskies' fifth win in six games on Wednesday night.
Napier scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half. Boatright delivered 11 of his 14 during the game-changing surge that turned a nine-point deficit into a 47-38 lead for UConn (22-6, 10-5 American Athletic Conference), which beat USF by 43 points in Hartford two weeks ago.
"Shabazz was incredible down the stretch. We were down nine, and we could have folded the tent. And then we went on an 18-0 run, and it just shows the grit of my guys," UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.
"It just shows the togetherness that we have and the confidence that we have. We knew we weren't going to beat this team by 40 or none of that stuff, but I did want to see the toughness that we had," Ollie added. "They were beating us in every facet in the first half and halfway through the second half. But some way, somehow, we found a way to win."
USF (12-16, 3-12) went scoreless for nearly seven minutes while UConn was making its move. The Bulls steadied themselves and gradually climbed back into the game.
Josh Heath made two free throws and a layup to trim UConn's lead to 58-56 with under a minute to go. Napier hit a long 3-pointer with 23.6 seconds remaining to put it out of reach.
"The first half we were phenomenal defensively on Napier and Boatright, but that's what makes those guys special. Napier's got that takeover ability, and you know it. We couldn't get the key stop when we needed it," USF coach Stan Heath said.
"That guy, to me, is the player of the year," Bulls leading scorer Victor Rudd said. "He's the reason why this team is as good as it is. ... Big players make big plays at the end of the day, and he did that."
Rudd led USF with 14 points and eight rebounds.
Coming off shooting 29.6 percent during a nine-point loss to SMU that knocked them out of the Top 25, the Huskies continued to sputter offensively early against the same team they embarrassed 83-40 on Feb. 12.
Rudd scored eight points and USF overcame a slow start of its own to lead 28-22 at the half, despite shooting just under 36 percent from the field and turning the ball over seven times.
The biggest reason was UConn's poor marksmanship (7 for 24, 29.2 percent), with the Huskies' backcourt tandem of Napier and Boatright going 0 for 8 while being limited to a combined five points from the foul line.
It was quite a turnaround for USF, which trailed 45-14 at the break in the first meeting between the teams.
Rudd is one of three players in the AAC - along with Houston's TaShawn Thomas and Central Florida's Isaiah Sykes - who rank among the 10 in the conference in scoring and rebounding.
The senior, who two seasons ago was a key component of the first USF team to make the NCAA tournament in 20 years, took up where he left off in a 27-point, 10-rebound performance in a lopsided loss at Louisville.
But in the end, the Bulls couldn't quite overcome the seven minute drought that followed a 10-2 run that put them up 38-29 with 13 minutes to go.
Niels Giffey made a 3-pointer to begin UConn's big run. Boatright missed his first five shots, but finally got going with a three-point play, followed by a 3-point shot, two free throws and another 3-pointer that finished the 18-0 burst.
Napier, 0 for 4 from the field in the opening half, made three clutch shots down the stretch, beginning with a pair of difficult layups that gave UConn some breathing room after USF pulled within 50-49. His 3-pointer in the closing seconds finished a 6 for 9 second half. Boatright wound up 3 for 11, but made 6 of 7 free throws.
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