HARTFORD – The UConn men’s basketball team has a mountain yet to climb if it still hopes to make the Big Dance in just a few weeks, but the Huskies took the first necessary steps Thursday night. With little room for error to start the AAC tournament, UConn gave the last-place USF Bulls little room to produce in a crushing opening round win at the XL Center.
“I thought our guys came out with intensity,” said head coach Kevin Ollie, who is now 9-1 at the helm in postseason play. “Now we are just going to continue to fight and do what we have to do to continue to survive.”
The Huskies jumped out to a deflating 25-5 lead within the games first 15 minutes, a credit to a defensive presence that has shown flashes of being elite as the season has gone on. Indeed UConn cruised to its 69-43 win behind that defense alongside a record-setting shooting performance, giving little doubt that they did not plan on its season ending Thursday night.
“We just had to come up and step up and make sure we played defense and let it translate to our offense, and we executed real well tonight,” said Daniel Hamilton, the recently honored AAC Rookie of the Year.
Hamilton started the scoring Thursday with a quick 3-pointer, giving the Huskies a lead that wouldn’t come close to being in jeopardy for the remainder of the night. Hamilton didn’t let up for the remainder of the contest either, scoring a game-high 20 points in what would go down as the most points scored by a freshman in the brief history of the AAC tournament.
“It gave me a whole lot of confidence,” said Hamilton on his hot streak to open the game. “I think that helped me out the rest of the night.”
UConn’s shooting didn’t in fact seem to be anything spectacular at points throughout the first half, with the Huskies at least still playing good enough to build a solid lead over the lesser Bulls. But once Hamilton, senior guard Ryan Boatright, and sophomore Rodney Purvis began clicking, there was no slowing down.
The Huskies finished the first half shooting 50 percent from the field only to follow up in the second half with even deadlier range. In all, the Huskies finished the night shooting 54.5 percent from the field, nearly 65 percent from beyond the arc, and made 11 of their 17 attempted 3-pointers, all three of which were also AAC tournament statistical records.
“We were happy we were able to shoot a good percentage from the field and from the 3-point line, so hopefully we can have some of that carry over to tomorrow,” said Purvis.
The Huskies held USF to just 14 points in the first half, on a night where the Bulls never had the chance to get into a rhythm. The Bulls ultimately finished a meager 31 percent from the field, dragged down by its abysmal first half.
Now, with Thursday’s win in the books, the Huskies have a quarterfinal matchup reserved with third-seeded Cincinnati (9 p.m., ESPNU). The Bearcats, who split their two regular season matchups with UConn, earned a first round bye in this season’s tournament.
“It’s going to be physical,” said Boatright. “I played them a lot of times and every single time that we play them it’s extremely physical and it’s going to be a close game.
In their first Jan. 10 matchup at the XL Center, the Huskies rode an excellent defensive outing and an 18-point performance from Boatright en route to a 62-56 win. A few weeks later in Ohio though, the Huskies had no answer for the sharpshooting Troy Caupain, falling in a sloppy game 70-58.
The winner of tomorrow night’s game will almost undoubtedly face the second-seeded Tulsa Golden Hurricane Saturday afternoon, pending an upset on Tulsa’s end to the tenth-seeded Houston Cougars. But with still many steps to be taken to conquer UConn’s latest test to get into the NCAA tournament, it’s doubtful the Huskies are looking to far past tomorrow’s date with their old friend Cincinnati.
“Tonight was a great way to come out,” said Purvis. “But we’re gonna come out with an even higher intensity tomorrow. It’s going to be rough, it’s going to be physical. But this is what you come to UConn for, to get the chance to play in games like this.”