UConn to play for first AAC title
Memphis — This was a Butcher's Special.
A real meat grinder.
UConn and Cincinnati engaged in a defensive tussle, wearing each other down with constant pressure in Friday's American Athletic Conference Championship semifinal at FedEx Forum.
Only one team would survive.
And that would be the fourth-seeded Huskies.
With a 58-56 victory, UConn (26-7) advances to tonight's championship game, facing second-seeded Louisville at 6 on ESPN. The Cardinals (28-5) routed No. 6 Houston, 94-65, behind Russ Smith's 42 points in the first semifinal on Friday.
It took all the defensive grit that the Huskies could muster and a fiercely competitive heart to beat top-seeded Cincinnati (27-6).
"It was a great victory for our program," coach Kevin Ollie said. "It was just a good grind out win. This team gets down and get dirty and that's why I love them to death."
Defense drove the Huskies in the second half as they forced two shot clock violations and numerous tough shots, holding the Bearcats to 38 percent shooting overall.
It was a wild ride to the finish, as UConn nearly blew an eight-point lead in the final four and a half minutes. Jermaine Saunders hit a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 57-56 with 12 seconds left.
The Huskies, the top free throw shooting team in the league, needed to convert. But senior Shabazz Napier, the AAC Player of the Year, hit only one of two shots with 11 seconds left.
Cincinnati's Sean Kilpatrick (14 points) raced up court and drove the lane for a contested layup over UConn forward DeAndre Daniels. The ball bounced off the rim three times and spun out, and the buzzer sounded.
"I'm definitely happy that we won," a relieved Napier said. "I'm such a competitor. I'm just upset I missed the free throw."
Four Huskies scored in double figures – Napier 15 points, Daniels 14, Ryan Boatright 13 and Niels Giffey 11. UConn overcame 15 turnovers – 11 in the first half – and shot 44 percent.
"We've been through it all season and we always have fight and never give up," Daniels said. "Everybody has heart on this team. When it comes down to the end, I put the bet on our team."
Still, nothing came easy for the Huskies.
The chase was on starting late in the first half when Cincinnati surged in front and took a four-point halftime lead.
The deficit grew to seven (41-34) on Shaquille Thomas's short jumper with 14:06 remaining.
But UConn dug in on defense, too, limiting the Bearcats to just one field goal in a nearly 11-minute stretch.
"We got down by seven and nobody pointed their fingers," Ollie said. "We just came together and stayed connected and everybody did their job."
Napier needed some help from his friends for the Huskies to fight back. Boatright arrived first, sinking a 3-pointer to push them in front for good, 46-43.
"My time came and I knocked down some big shots," said Boatright, who's been struggling shooting the ball this season.
Giffey, the hero in Thursday's quarterfinal win, buried a 3-pointer and freshman Amida Brimah dunked home a miss to cap a 17-2 run for a 51-43 lead – UConn's largest of the game – with 4:36 left.
The Huskies barely held on from there.
Both teams endured prolonged scoring droughts. UConn looked uncomfortable from the start against one of the top defensive teams in the country. The Huskies managed enough offense to build a 21-16 lead.
But they would score just six points in the remaining 9:56 of the first half and trailed 31-27 at the break. They had more turnovers (11) than made field goals (10). Too often they forced shots or rushed to beat the shot block.
Still, Ollie remained upbeat at halftime.
"We had 11 turnovers and were down by four, so I came in (the locker room) smiling inside," Ollie said. "I didn't really show that to them."
The second half didn't get any easier, but the Huskies eventually found some offensive rhythm.
Now they get another shot at Louisville, a team that sweep the regular season series including rolling to an 81-48 win just a week ago. The Cardinals won their two AAC tournament games by an average of an average of 45 points.
"This is postseason and that is behind us," Ollie said. "I think we're a better team and of course Louisville is a better team. We're going to face off in the ring and see who comes out. But I like my guys."
News and notes
UConn improved to 11-3 in conference tournament semifinals. … Napier moved past Corny Thompson and into fifth on the program's all-time scoring list. … The absence of reserve Tyler Olander (stomach bug) hurt UConn's frontcourt depth. … Thomas, Cincinnati's starting forward, left only 51 seconds into the game with finger injury but returned. … Brimah picked up a technical foul for throwing an elbow.
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