UConn Highlights from 2015 American Kickoff

Newport, R.I.— The American Athletic Conference kicked off the 2015-16 football season Tuesday with its third annual Media Day. To begin the day, the conference released the preseason media poll, where Cincinnati received 22 of a possible 30 votes to win the inaugural American Athletic Conference championship game.

The Bearcats were also the favorites to win the East division, while Memphis beat out Houston and Navy as the West division favorite. UConn was picked to finish last in the East division. This season marks the first year with two divisions due to the addition of Navy as a football-only member of the American.

Diaco has high hopes for new season

Despite being predicted to finish last in the conference, UConn football head coach Bob Diaco has high hopes for his second season with the Huskies.

“I didn’t read it. I don’t care. It has nothing to do with what I’m doing. Zero,” Diaco said of the media poll. “Everything is going to be done better at a higher level.”

Diaco has taken the positives away from last year’s 2-10 season and used them as a foundation to build off of as the Huskies take on one of the 25 hardest schedules in the country. Even with the difficult schedule, Diaco believes his team is talented enough to compete with the best in the country.

“We’re going to win every game,” Diaco said. “We’re going to play as one of the four teams in the playoffs and win a national championship. And how are we going to do it? We’re going to focus on today.”

Big Expectations for wide receiver Noel Thomas

Coming off a 26-catch, four-touchdown season, junior Noel Thomas comes into the 2015 season as the projected No. 1 receiver. After working hard in the offseason, the Norwalk, Connecticut native seems to be on the verge of a breakout season.

“I’ve watched this guy. This guy is making an investment, and I’ve been around great receivers and he looks like one of them,” Diaco said of Thomas. “If he’s not one of the most dominant wide receivers in the country, then shame on him.”

The Huskies will need a strong season from Thomas to fill the void of Geremy Davis and Deshon Foxx, who finished first and second respectively in receptions last year. Dhameer Bradley and tight ends Tommy Myers and Alec Bloom also figure to be integral parts of UConn’s passing game.

Adams, Melifonwu look to lead UConn defense

The UConn defense was a bright spot for the Huskies last season, and this year looks to be no different even with the loss of former captain and current Dallas Cowboy Byron Jones.

Last season, redshirt senior Andrew Adams and redshirt junior Obi Melifonwu were major contributors in a UConn defense that ranked No. 36 in the country in passing yards allowed per game.

“We’ve been together for three years. Our chemistry is unreal. We hang out together off the field…knowing that he has my back and I have his back, that goes a long way,” Adams said about his relationship with Melifonwu. “We just look to improve from last year and be one of the best safety duos in the country.”

Adams and Melifonwu combined for 171 tackles last season, with Adams adding a team-high four interceptions and a fumble return for a touchdown. Melifonwu successfully broke up three passes last season, good for second on the team amongst returning players.

“The safeties are the best tandem in the country,” Diaco said. “Tell me a better one.”

 

Shirreffs leads quarterback battle

Heading into the first practices of fall, North Carolina State transfer Bryant Shirreffs has an early lead in the race to become UConn’s starting quarterback. After a strong showing during the spring season, the job will be Shirreffs to lose once practice start this Thursday.

“Bryant’s going to run predominantly with that one offense,” Diaco said. “Everybody is going to get a chance to their wears, and we’re going to play the best players.”

Tim Boyle and junior college transfer Garrett Anderson figure to be the most likely challengers to Shirreffs. Freshmen Tyler Davis and Brandon Bisack are in the mix as well.

Boyle threw one touchdown and three interceptions last season in nine games for the Huskies and has the size and skill to pry the job away from Shirreffs with strong showings in practice. Anderson’s experience at the junior-college level could give him an edge as well, either as a starter or the No. 2 slot.

Diaco will name the starter two weeks before the Sept. 3 season opener against Villanova.

Civil Conflict

One of the biggest stories in the American Athletic Conference this offseason was the Civil Conflict trophy, which was created by Diaco to be awarded to the winner of the Central Florida-UConn game. After taking the internet by storm, Diaco elaborated on the creation of the Civil Conflict trophy and its intentions.

“That was created out of respect for their program and coaches,” Diaco said. “The targeting of that program was the beginning for our team…this is a great program. Coach O’Leary runs a program the way I love a football program to be run, and he’s created one of the best football programs in the country and the best in our conference.”

After defeating UCF 37-29 at Rentschler Field last season, Diaco and the Huskies will take the Civil Conflict trophy down to Orlando to take on the Knights Oct. 10.

 

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Anthony Kay Accepts Invite United States Collegiate National Team

UConn baseball pitcher Anthony Kay has accepted an invitation to join the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.

The team — which consists of 24 non-draft eligible prospects — will play at least 17 international games over the course of June and July.

“I am extremely excited for this chance to play alongside the best players in college baseball against some of the world’s finest competition,” Kay said in a press release. “We are remaining focused on our season here at UConn but I know this will be a terrific opportunity for me and for our program.”

After going 5-4 with a 3.49 ERA last season in 67 innings pitched, Kay has blossomed into one of the best pitchers in the country in 2015. The sophomore leads the American Athletic Conference and ranks 12th nationally with a 1.29 ERA.

Kay also leads the American in opposing batting average (.189) and is second in innings pitched (70).

“We are thrilled for Anthony,” head coach Jim Penders said in a press release. “He has worked to earn the opportunity to wear USA across his chest, and I know it is an honor for him to represent his country.”

Kay is the first Husky to play for the College National Team since pitcher Matt Barnes and current Astros standout George Springer were invited in 2010. In 2011, LJ Mazilli was selected as an alternate for the team but did not play.

“Whenever UConn baseball can be represented in the Red, White, and Blue, it is so humbling,” Penders said. “Anthony joins a long list of former Huskies to have the privilege, and I’m sure he will make the most of this chance by representing himself, our program, and university in the best way possible.”

Sports Editor Matt Zampini contributed to this report.

 

Men’s Basketball Gamer: Comeback Bid Falls Short for UConn in Championship Loss to SMU

HARTFORD — The reigning national champions will not play in the 2015 NCAA tournament.

UConn’s bid for the American Athletic Conference championship crown fell short Sunday at the XL Center. Despite overcoming a 17-point second half deficit and cutting the lead to five, the Huskies could not overcome a hot start from SMU, falling in the championship game 62-54.

The Huskies were left out of the NCAA tournament field following the game and will await an invitation to the NIT, which UConn last participated in in 2010.

That realization weighed heavily on senior captain Ryan Boatright, who turned in one of his worst appearances as a Husky in Sunday’s loss. Now UConn’s eighth-leading scorer in program history after passing Kemba Walker early in the second half, Boatright finished with seven points. Four of those came from the line, the rest on a 3-pointer early in the second half – his only made shot on 12 attempts.

“I was just off, just off night for me,” Boatright said. “Missed a few shots, tried to get to the rim, didn’t get to the foul line, they didn’t go my way. But I’m a man, though. I can take it on the chest. I’m going to move on and keep working.”

Boatright’s struggles were physical, too. He got hit in the face early in the game and then injured his shoulder in the second half.

During a timeout following Boatright’s injury, he did not say anything to his teammates, according to Rodney Purvis.

“He didn’t have to say anything,” Purvis said. “We know the guy carried us all year. It was time for us to be able to do something without him for a little bit.”

Purvis rose to the occasion. The sophomore led the comeback for UConn with a career-high 29 points, making 11 of 22 shots.

When he hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to six with 5:53 to go, the pro-UConn crowd of 13,365 erupted, and the game started to take on a feel similar to Saturday’s win over Tulsa.

“I was happy in their effort,” head coach Kevin Ollie said. “They showed a lot of resilience and a lot of heart, a lot of hustle.”

The game was not lost entirely by Boatright’s cold shooting hand, as much as he will take the blame for it. Big, physical SMU tortured UConn inside in the first half.

The Mustangs did their inside damage in the first half, outscoring UConn 16-4 in the paint. In the process, Amida Brimah and Phil Nolan picked up two fouls, and Rakim Lubin was hit for three.

For a depleted team – absent power forward Kentan Facey the entire tournament – that put UConn in the difficult situation of going small against a towering team.

SMU’s big men – Markus Kennedy, Yanick Moreira and Ben Moore – combined for 26 points in the first half, and the Mustangs rode that dominant effort to a 33-19 halftime lead.

“We just can’t get down by 17 to a team like this and then we try to come back at the end,” Ollie said. “But then you’ve got to play perfect basketball.”

It will not be the NCAA tournament, but the Huskies plan to approach the NIT with the same intensity.

“I’m going to be down a little bit about this loss, but as soon as I put this jersey back on and get back on the floor, I want to win the game,” Boatright said. “I don’t care what we’re playing for – if it’s for free or we’re playing pick-up ball – I want to win the game. I’m going to get my mind right and get ready for the NIT.”

UConn Hero Boatright: ‘I’m Going to Take This Last Shot’

HARTFORD — The script was unfolding the way it had so many times during this ludicrous UConn basketball season.

Once again, the Huskies had to claw and scratch, fight for every point. Once again, they came from behind to take the lead.

And once again, in the American Athletic Conference quarterfinals, UConn saw it all nearly fall to shambles.

Cincinnati’s Troy Caupain hit a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left to play, and the Bearcats immediately fouled on the next possession.

The man on the line: Ryan Boatright. UConn’s leader, the warrior with a “heart of a lion,” had fought for everything – eligibility, playing time, victories – for four years. He was now fighting for his career.

Shooting one-and-one, he missed the first free throw. Gary Clark got the rebound for Cincinnati.

Timeout.

Caupain missed a lay-up, but Shaq Thomas came out of nowhere for the put-back.

Tie game. Thirteen seconds to play.

“I was like, ‘déjà vu, this is Texas again,’” Boatright said.

It was Texas, but also Yale, Memphis and Temple. It was all the games that UConn had in its pocket, only to watch it slip away.

It was all the games that put UConn in this situation. Only being the last team standing at the XL Center this weekend is going to extend the Huskies’ season into the NCAA tournament. Anything else, they are looking at the NIT.

Boatright did not come back for his senior year to play in the NIT.

“Once we got to the huddle, Coach (Kevin Ollie) kept us composed, and he told me he was going to give me the ball,” Boatright said.

“And I told him, I said, ‘I’m not going out like that. I’m going to take this last shot, and I’m going to make it.’”

The world knew Boatright was going to take the shot. Who else? That was Kemba Walker’s shot to make in 2011. It was Shabazz Napier’s in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

When Boatright took Thomas one-on-one, forced him to protect the baseline and pulled back for a three, the shot was his, the game was his.

The world – for the two longest seconds of Boatright’s life – was his.

When Boatright put the ball in the air, it had the line.

“I saw the ball going in the air and I started celebrating before it even went in the air because I knew it was good,” Rodney Purvis said.

For a second – rather, an eternity – Purvis’ celebration looked like it may be premature. The ball spun on the rim and kept on spinning.

Tick.

Tick.

Still spinning.

“I almost went crazy watching that shot. It seemed like it just took so long to go in,” Phil Nolan said.

But it finally did. The ball forced its way through the net. UConn’s season lived on.

It lived on because Boatright did not come back to play in the NIT.

“He’s a senior and he came through for us,” Ollie said. “I’m very proud of him, but I’m very proud of our team. We hung in there today, tonight, and we live to play on Saturday.

“And that’s what UConn basketball is all about.”

American Men’s Basketball Championship: SMU, Temple to Meet in Semifinals

HARTFORD — The top half of the bracket has “gone chalk,” as they say during the first two days of the American Athletic Conference tournament, though not without a little intrigue.

After a narrow escape in overtime against UCF Thursday, East Carolina made a run at No. 1 seed Southern Methodist in the first quarterfinal game of the day, but ultimately lost 74-68.

The Pirates, the No. 8 seed, set a tournament record with 15 3-pointers, surpassing UConn’s total of 11 against USF Thursday, and they needed all 15 to hang around.

Led by Nic Moore, the Mustangs demonstrated why they won the regular season title. The conference Player of the Year scored 20 points and had five assists as SMU held on for the win.

East Carolina missed eight of its last 10 shots.

SMU will play the No. 4 seed Temple in the semifinals Saturday after the Owls came back to top No. 5 seed Memphis 80-75.

Memphis took a nine-point lead about halfway through the first half, but Temple stormed back to take the lead. The Tigers took a 32-31 lead into the half, but the offensive battle of the second half belonged to the Owls.

As he has all season, Will Cummings led the way for Temple. The senior guard scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half. After he tied the game with a free throw with 10:59 to play, Obi Enechionyia hit a jumper 57 seconds later to put the Owls ahead for good.

SMU and Temple will play at 3 p.m. on ESPN2 Saturday.

The second session of games Friday will determine the other semifinal matchup. Tulsa, the No. 2 seed, makes its American championship debut against No. 10 Houston at 7 p.m. before UConn, the No. 6 seed, meets up with longtime rival Cincinnati, the No. 3 seed. Both games are on ESPNU.

Men’s Basketball: UConn Tops USF, Advances to American Quarterfinals

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.”

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American Men’s Basketball Championship: East Carolina Holds Off UCF, Will Play SMU

HARTFORD — Despite surrendering a 17-point lead, East Carolina, the No. 8 seed in the American Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Championship, will play No. 1 seed SMU in the quarterfinals after defeating No. 9 seed UCF 81-80 in overtime in the first round.

UCF jumped out to a 7-2 lead behind two buckets from Justin McBride and another from Adonys Henriquez. Then the Pirates, the No. 8 seed in the tournament, started to take over.

ECU went on a 20-10 run over the next 7:25 to take a 32-15 lead. Marshall Guilmette led the way in the first half with 11 points, but four Pirates scored five or more points.

Led by Henriquez and B.J. Taylor, the Knights fought back down the stretch in the first half. ECU’s lead was cut to 38-30 at the half after UCF mounted a 15-6 run in the final four-and-a-half minutes.

The second half was a back-and-forth contest, but ECU maintained its distance for the first 12 minutes. With less than nine minutes to play, Taylor and Henriquez hit back-to-back threes in an eight-second span to put UCF within two, leading to a timeout from ECU coach Jeff Lebo.

East Carolina went back ahead by as many as seven, but UCF continuously forced the game back to within one possession.

Trailing 76-74 with 33 seconds to play and the shot clock on, UCF took the ball down the floor looking for the tie. Taylor missed the initial drive, but Kasey Wilson made the heads-up rebound, putting in a second-chance effort with 4.7 seconds to play.

B.J. Tyson, ECU’s leading scorer, took the ball the length of the floor, but kicked it out to Paris Roberts-Campbell, who missed the 3-pointer at the buzzer.

Guilmette’s 3-pointer and a layup from Caleb White was all the offense the Pirates got in overtime. It was all they needed.

The Pirates quarterfinal game against SMU will Friday at noon on ESPN2.

In the second game of the first round, seventh-seed Tulane will play the No. 10 seed, Houston (6 p.m., ESPNews). The winner will face the No. 2 seed, Tulsa, in the quarterfinals Friday.