HARTFORD — On a quiet Thursday night for Ryan Boatright, UConn needed a big game from the American Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year at the XL Center.
It got it.
Daniel Hamilton rose to the occasion in the first round of the conference championship, scoring 20 points on 6 of 8 shooting to lead the Huskies to a 69-43 win over USF and a spot in the quarterfinals.
Thursday was a record-setting performance for the Huskies. UConn’s .545 field goal percentage and .647 3-point shooting percentage were both single-game highs in The American Championship. Hamilton’s 20 points were the most for a freshman in the tournament’s brief history.
Hamilton hit a 3-pointer on the first possession and never looked back. Though he only scored five points in the first half, that three set him up for a career game.
“It gave me a whole lot of confidence, especially – I’ve been struggling from the field,” Hamilton said. “It gave me a whole lot of confidence seeing that one go in, and I think that helped me out the rest of the night.”
Boatright finished with 12 points, three assists and two steals. He aided in the Huskies’ assault from the perimeter by shooting 3-for-7 from deep, hitting several timely shots to extend UConn’s lead.
His 12 points were the fewest for the senior captain since he scored seven in a 75-72 loss at Memphis Feb. 19. But Boatright did not need to do the typical “Boat against the world” routine Thursday. He had help.
He had it from Hamilton and he had it from Rodney Purvis, who finished with 13 points and four rebounds. Had he gotten that help last week, UConn might have gotten to kick its feet up and observe Thursday’s games.
“They stepped up,” Boatright said. “They played with confidence. They took care of the basketball. They played both ends of the floor. They both did a great job in there.”
Boatright, Hamilton and Purvis were not the only ones to have fun on the offensive end Thursday. Omar Calhoun and Amida Brimah each scored nine points, dominating the Bulls inside. The Huskies outscored USF 20-10 in the paint.
Ball movement was the key. Instead of everyone trying to run the offense themselves, a problem the Huskies had identified in their game many times, they created chances for each other. UConn finished with 10 assists on the night.
“No one really cared about who was getting shots, who was scoring,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “We were just throwing to the open man and the open man was making plays. That’s how we’re going to have to play the rest of the way.”
UConn was able to go into cruise control early. USF failed to score in the first six minutes and shot a miserable 23.8 percent in the first half. The Huskies’ offense slowed down for a stretch late in the first half, but UConn still took a 29-14 lead into halftime.
The Bulls’ 14 points were the fewest in a half in the American championship. Rutgers scored 15 in the second half against Louisville in the quarterfinals after scoring 16 in the first half.
“We want to win, so we just focus on all the little things now,” junior center Phil Nolan said.
Out of the break, there was no contest. USF guard Troy Holston Jr. hit two free throws to cut the Huskies’ lead to 13 with 9:33 to play. That was as close as the Bulls would get in the second half.
In the absence of Kentan Facey, who suffered a concussion earlier in the week, Brimah, the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, and Nolan stepped up their games on the defensive end.
Brimah tied the conference tournament’s single-game record with five blocks while grabbing five rebounds to go with his nine points. Nolan matched a career high with seven rebounds, five of them on the defensive glass, before leaving the game in foul trouble.
Nolan has upped his game in the second half of the season. After gaining more than 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, the junior struggled out of the gate, but he has become a key contributor on the defensive end.
“I think it just took some time to get back in the rhythm,” Nolan said. “I mean, I’m back, so I’m just trying my hardest.”
UConn will face longtime rival Cincinnati in the quarterfinals Friday (9 p.m., ESPNU), adding another chapter to the intense rivalry between the two programs. Seven of the last eight games between the two former Big East heavyweights have been decided by 10 points or less, including a 62-56 win for the Huskies at the XL Center Jan. 10.
The other game was a 12-point decision won by the Bearcats (22-9) Jan. 29 in Ohio.
“Everybody knows when we play Cincinnati, it’s a dog fight,” Ollie said. “We have to come out and play with intensity, play hard.”