HARTFORD –On the heels of Sunday’s 81-73 win over the No. 21 SMU Mustangs, the UConn men’s basketball team may just be hitting its stride at the right time.
Having not yet beaten a ranked opponent in three chances this season, the win over the visiting Mustangs – who thrashed the Huskies 73-55 in Texas on Valentine’s Day – can easily be classified as UConn’s best win of the year. Still, as a team simply fighting for a spot in the NCAA tournament it won just last year, UConn’s revenge win showcased every aspect of the team that may prove dangerous in postseason play.
“There still might be struggles but I think we’re learning how to get through those struggles,” said head coach Kevin Ollie. “We’ve just got to keep grinding games out.”
Ryan Boatright poured in another excellent performance with 23 points and five assists in the winning effort, but it was sophomore Rodney Purvis who stole the show and took control in front of the sold-out XL Center crowd. Purvis, Coach Ollie’s proclaimed “Ferrari,” finished with a career-high 28 points in a performance that also included four rebounds, three assists and one particularly explosive slam dunk over SMU’s 6-foot-11 center Yanick Moreira.
It was also Purvis, alongside freshman Daniel Hamilton, who anchored UConn’s crucial 15-4 run in the second half after a Sterling Brown 3-pointer tied the game at 51 with 9:16 left in the second half. The Huskies had been leading the game for the entire game up to that point, but the offensive streak managed to put UConn back up 66-57, an advantage they would then not lose for the remainder of the game.
“It shows a lot of toughness. Earlier on in the year, you know, we probably would have bit the dust,” said Purvis on his team’s strong response to SMU’s comeback effort. “I feel like we’re just getting better.”
The Huskies do certainly seem to still be growing more dangerous as the regular season continues on into its twilight, as evidenced by the team’s prolific offensive showing against SMU’s imposing defense. UConn shot more than 53 percent from the field (and an incredible 62 percent in the second half) in a showing that included nine 3-pointers made in just 20 attempts.
Sunday’s performance was one that could have given trouble to any challenger, something that SMU head coach Larry Brown recognized clearly after his team’s defeat.
“I don’t know how many teams would have beaten them tonight,” said Brown. “The better team won. I didn’t think we matched their energy.”
The Huskies earned the right to enjoy Sunday’s win, especially considering how far the team has come from dropping so many winnable games during conference play. A short memory though will always be the better friend.
With two games left on UConn’s regular season schedule, the goal is to keep the momentum rolling as strong as the team can into the conference tournament in two weeks. But also working on UConn’s side is the tournament’s location: the XL Center. The Huskies haven’t lost there since New Year’s Eve. They were able to feed off the arena’s energy in Sunday’s crucial win against the Mustangs.
“The difference this time was just not letting them come into our house and letting them do what they did to us the last time again,” said Daniel Hamilton. “That’s what we’ve got to do from now on: protect our house.”