Huskies take solid first step in AAC tournament

HARTFORD, Conn. – One down. Three to go.

That’s the only way UConn can approach the task ahead. It’s tournament time, the turnaround from one night to another is quick, and game two promises to be another rock fight with an old foe from Big East Conference days.

The defending national champion Huskies began their rather complicated march to madness with a 69-43 victory over USF Thursday night in the first round of the American Athletic Conference tournament at the XL Center. This one started out with an 8-0 lead that mushroomed to 25-5. UConn, riding a hot hand from 3-point land and the offense of Daniel Hamilton (20 points) and Rodney Purvis (13 points), then shifted into cruise control.

“I thought our guys came out with intensity,” coach Kevin Ollie said. “We stayed connected. We played hard on the defensive end and we wanted to establish that the first five minutes. We’ve just got to continue it now. . .. We’re going to go back, get off our legs and get ready for Cincinnati. We’re going to fight and do what we have to do. Continue to survive.”

The Huskies, needing a four-game sweep and a tourney championship to receive the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, know the rest of the journey won’t be this easy. No 6 seed UConn (18-13) advances to the quarterfinal round and will play No. 3 Cincinnati (22-9) Friday (approximately 9 p.m., ESPNU).

UConn and Cincinnati split their regular season series. The Huskies won 62-56 on Jan. 10 at the XL Center. Cincinnati held court at home, returning the favor 19 days later with a 70-58 win.

“Everybody knows when we play Cincinnati, it’s a dog fight and we’ve got to come out and play with intensity and play hard,” Ollie said.

The Huskies were without forward Kentan Facey Thursday. Facey suffered a concussion in practice Tuesday and was held out of the game. Ryan Boatright scored 12 points for UConn. Phillp Nolan matched a career high with seven rebounds for the Huskies, who shot 54.5 percent. UConn was 11-for-17 from 3-point range (64.7 percent). That’s the most made 3-pointers in one game in the short 2-year history of the AAC tournament.

UConn scored the first eight points of the game and led 12-2, 17-2 and 25-5 before South Florida could generate any offense at all. The Bulls missed their first nine shots before Ruben Guerrero scored with 13:41 to play in the half.

When the Huskies have three players in double figures, the offensive load for Boatright obviously becomes easier.

“They answered everything I asked them to do,” Boatright said. “They stepped up. They played with confidence. They took care of the basketball. They played both ends of the floor. They did a great job.”

USF was led by 13 points for Nehemiah Morillo. Troy Holston Jr. had 12. The Bulls (9-23) have faced great adversity this season. Anthony Collins and Holston both played 39 minutes because of a short bench.

“We came out in the first half and faced a team that came out with a little bit of vinegar,” USF coach Orlando Antigua said. “Our guys were a little bit … had some nerves and understandably so in a conference tournament with the kind of atmosphere that was here tonight. Once we settled down and started making some shots but you’ve got to give Connecticut credit. They made some tough shots, especially early on.”

The Huskies were balanced offensively in the first half with Boatright and Omar Calhoun scoring six points each. Hamilton, the AAC Rookie of the Year, opened the scoring with a three-pointer and finished with five points at the break. Amida Brimah and Purvis also had five points.

“That gave me a whole lot of confidence,” Hamilton said of the first of four 3-pointers he hit. “I’ve been struggling from the field so it gave me a whole of confidence seeing that one go in, I think that helped me out the rest of the night.”

Calhoun hit a pullup jumper to give the Huskies a 15-point edge. But the play of the half was a breakaway dunk by Brimah that was the result of a Boatright steal. Boatright passed ahead to Purvis, who probably could have scored on a layup, but he passed behind him to Hamilton who then dished to Brimah for a crowd pleasing dunk that put UConn ahead 25-5.

It was one of UConn’s top highlights of the season.

“When I got the steal, I saw Rodney doing what he do best which is running the lane,” Boatright said. “I think he’s great in transition in the open floor. I just tried to give him the ball as soon as possible and let him make a play for us. He did that. He passed it to Daniel. Then Daniel made the great play with finding the trailer. Amida did what he does best – which is finish.”

USF called timeout to pull itself together. The Huskies enjoyed the dunk and might have let up a bit at that point. The Bulls outscored UConn 9-4 the rest of the half, but this one was clearly over with UConn leading 29-14 at the half and then stretching the lead to 26 points in the second half.

“We’re going to continue to play aggressive, we’re going to continue to play hard,” Ollie said. “We want them to have the will to share the basketball. I thought we did that. We’ve got to have the same will against Cincinnati. That’s the way we’re going to have to play the rest of the way.”

East Carolina and Houston were winners in the afternoon session.. . .  B.J. Tyson scored 19 and Marshall Guilmette had 18 for East Carolina as the Pirates defeated UCT 81-80 in overtime. B.J. Taylor led UCF (12-18) with 22 points and outscored ECU 46-38 in the second half to force the extra period. East Carolina (14-18) advances to play top-seeded SMU (24-6) and noon Friday. . . . Jherrod Stiggers and Cavon Baker combined for 43 points as Houston (13-18) downed Tulane 66-60. Payton Henson led Tulane (15-16) with 14. Houston will play No. 2 seed Tulsa (21-9) in Friday’s quarterfinals at 7 p.m. . . . Attendance for the evening session was announced as 5,431. . . . UConn is now 7-1 at the XL Center this season. “I don’t understand why we play so well in this building,” Ollie said. “The fans are great. Gampel is great we just we just had a couple of unfortunate bounces. . . . I’m glad the American Conference chose the XL Center to have their tournament.”



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