Sizzling start helps UConn top South Florida in AAC tournament opener

Memphis, Tenn. — They could do without the white-knuckle ride to the finish Thursday.

Everything else, the Huskies are thoroughly satisfied with, especially the final result.

Ninth-seeded UConn seized command early in its American Athletic Conference tournament opener and then held off a late charge from eighth-seeded South Florida for an 80-73 victory at the FedExForum.

Next up is a difficult matchup with top-seeded Houston (29-2) at noon Friday in the quarterfinals.

"Obviously, thrilled to advance," coach Dan Hurley said. "Really liked the way we guarded, really like the way we played the game completely, especially the first 35 minutes. We were in complete command of that game up until Jalen (Adams) fouled out. And then things obviously got a little sketchy for us out there.

"But I thought until that point, we did everything we wanted to do."

Of course, there was some adversity.

UConn (16-16) has battled injuries to key players all year long and played without starter Alterique Gilbert, who's sidelined with a concussion and eye injury. But the Huskies had Adams, their star guard, in the lineup for the second straight game after returning from a knee injury.

Adams was brilliant, contributing 19 points, six rebounds and five assists while junior Christian Vital poured in game-high 25 points and graduate guard Tarin Smith added 14. UConn shot a sizzling 54.3 percent and made a season-high 13 3-pointers in 24 attempts (54.2 percent).

"I was out there having fun with my teammates," Adams said. "Especially when it is do or die and you see everything going in the hoop like that, it's a great feeling."

The Huskies overcame serious foul trouble. Adams fouled out with four minutes, six seconds remaining, while starting big man Josh Carlton was limited to just 16 minutes.

Good thing they had a 14-point cushion (70-56) when Adams left the game for good.

South Florida (19-13) used a 13-3 run to close within 73-68 on a David Collins three with 34 seconds left. But the Huskies converted nine of their last 10 free throws, including five by Vital, to hold on. They won despite scoring just one field goal in the final 8:18.

"I didn't panic," Vital said of when Adams fouled out. "My teammates didn't panic either. ... So when I was out there, I just knew that the other four guys were confident in themselves as well, and we were going to win that game no matter what."

The Huskies trailed by as many as five in the first 10 minutes before racing in front with a game-changing 19-1 spurt. They started out crazy hot from 3-point range, sinking nine of their first 11, and shot a tournament record 66.7 percent (14-for-21) from the field before intermission.

Adams buried three straight from beyond the arc. Vital drained two in a row, his first giving the Huskies the lead for good, 21-18.

They never blinked when Carlton, who averaged 19 points in the previous three games, headed to the bench for the remainder of the half just 5:09 into the game. Reserve Isaiah Whaley, who came in averaging 3.2 minutes per game, provided a surprising spark, chipping in a career-high tying eight points and four rebounds.

The lead stood at 39-26 at halftime and never dipped below double digits until just over two minutes remained in the game.

The Huskies have emerged from a funk to win three of their last four games.

A year ago, they headed home after losing to SMU in the first round by the same score that it won by on Thursday. They lost the only regular season meeting with Houston, 71-63, on Feb. 14.

"The main difference is we're not thinking about going back to Storrs right now," Vital said. "We're thinking about Houston and going to the next round. And with a good group of guys who feel confident, not only in themselves but in each other. We have been through a lot this year. And now it's March, now it is time to lay everything out on the line."

g.keefe@theday.com 

AAC men's basketball tournament

At Memphis, Tenn.

First Round

Thursday's Results

No. 9 UConn 80, No. 8 South Florida 73

No. 5 Memphis 83, No. 12 Tulane 68

No. 10 SMU 74, No. 7 Tulsa 65

No. 6 Wichita State 73, No. 11 East Carolina 57

Quarterfinals

Today's Games

No. 1 Houston vs. UConn, Noon (ESPN2)

No. 4 Central Florida vs. Memphis, 2:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

No. 2 Cincinnati vs. No. 10 SMU, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)

No. 3 Temple vs. No. 6 Wichita State, 9:30 p.m. (ESPNU)

Semifinals

Saturday's Games

Houston-UConn winner vs. UCF-Memphis winner, 3 p.m. (ESPN2)

Cincinnati-SMU winner vs. Temple-Wichita State winner, 5:30 p.m. (ESPN2)

Championship

Sunday's Game

Semifinal winners, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)


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