HARTFORD – Two weeks ago, UConn was battered, thrown around and beaten to a pulp by SMU.
“It wasn’t even a game,” head coach Kevin Ollie said.
Sunday was a different story. Sunday was a different UConn team.
The Huskies, behind a career-high 28 points and 23 from Ryan Boatright, made an address to the nation, confirming that they are indeed still alive with an 81-73 win over No. 21 SMU Sunday at the XL Center.
UConn (17-11, 10-6 American) is now in fifth place in the American and in control of a first-round bye for next week’s tournament in Hartford. Memphis, the Huskies’ next opponent, is one game behind.
SMU (23-6, 14-3) hung around the entire way, but the game was only in doubt for a matter of moments at any given point. UConn took control early and it did not let up.
“The better team won. I didn’t think we matched their energy,” SMU coach Larry Brown said.
No one had more energy than Purvis, who started the game with a 3-pointer on the first possession and never looked back. The sophomore guard was 9 of 16 from the field and 3-for-6 from deep. He was deadly on the perimeter and more aggressive than ever slashing to the hoop.
He created his own chances, too. After going five games without a steal, Purvis made three against SMU, taking them the other way to either get the bucket or go to the line, where he was perfect on seven attempts.
“Whatever he did last night or whatever he’s been doing, he needs to continue to do it,” Boatright said. “I’m just proud of him, man. He just stayed positive. He did it within the system, and he played on both ends of the floor. Other than that, man, you can’t ask for nothing else.”
Purvis scored eight of UConn’s first 10 points before going relatively quiet for the rest of the first half. His start helped the Huskies jump out to a 10-4 lead. Unlike the trip to SMU two weeks ago, UConn got the lead and managed to keep the Mustangs at bay.
The Huskies locked down Nic Moore for most of the first half. SMU’s point guard, the fourth-leading scorer in the American, was 0-for-5 from the field before a layup with 7:11 to play in the first.
If UConn had allowed Moore to get going, it could have been trouble. But the Huskies were set on asserting themselves as the dominant team.
They made that perfectly clear less than two minutes later, when Boatright and Amida Brimah connected on a highlight-reel alley-oop that gave the Huskies a 24-14 lead with 5:48 to play.
Out of a timeout, Larry Brown’s Mustangs started fighting back. Center Yanick Moreira scored eight of the next 10 points for SMU to cut UConn’s lead to 28-24.
Boatright and Purvis doubled the lead at the line down the stretch, but a Moreira jumper at the buzzer put SMU within six at the half.
A halftime lead is normally a good thing for UConn. The Huskies were 7-0 entering the game when leading at the half.
But the Mustangs refused to go away. Sterling Brown and Ryan Boatright traded threes to start the half, initiating what had the makings of a captivating, back-and-forth battle for the final 20 minutes.
Purvis’ took his turn to wow the crowd a couple minutes later. With all the good he did Sunday, no play drew more attention than when he challenged Moore one-on-one, drove into the lane and finished with a one-handed dunk in the face of Moreira.
He did not get a foul on that drive, but Purvis was more determined to get to the bucket than in recent games. There was no fear about potentially going to the line.
“I’ve not been as confident because I was afraid to go to the free-throw line,” Purvis said. “Now I just feel like…we don’t really have anything to lose, so I don’t really have no need to be afraid anymore.”
Brown was dangerous from the corner for SMU. His third 3-pointer of the game right in front of his bench tied the game at 51, and Markus Kennedy put the Mustangs up two on the next possession.
That lead was short lived. Daniel Hamilton, who finished with 16 points, hit a three at the other end to put the Huskies up three.
They never looked back.
Of the 49 points UConn scored in the second half, 46 of them belonged to Boatright, Purvis and Hamilton. After SMU took the lead, the three combined for 27 of the Huskies’ final 30 points. The other three points – two free throws from Kentan Facey and one from Terrance Samuel – were the only points scored by the rest of the Huskies in the second half.
Boatright has been waiting on that kind of offensive help for a while.
“All year,” Boatright said. “All year. I’ve been waiting on it all year because I’ve seen these guys in the summertime and all the work they’ve been putting in. And I know how good they can be.”