Last year, the UConn men's basketball team was banned from postseason play because of the program's low Academic Progress Rate scores under Jim Calhoun's watch. This year, the Huskies appear to be making up for lost time.
A free throw by senior guard Shabazz Napier with 11.1 seconds left in regulation sealed the deal for No. 21 Connecticut, which defeated No. 13 Cincinnati, 58-56, in the semifinal round of the American Athletic Conference tournament on Friday night. The Huskies will take on another Big East exile, defending national champion Louisville, for the the inaugural American Tournament title on Saturday in Memphis. No. 5 Louisville stopped Houston, 94-65, in Friday's other semifinal.
Napier finished with 15 points. UConn junior forward DeAndre Daniels had 14 points and nine rebounds. Junior guard Ryan Boatright added 13, and senior forward Neils Giffey contributed 11 on 4-for-5 shooting, including 3 of 4 from beyond the three-point arc. Freshman center Amida Brimah had seven rebounds and four blocks—three of them coming in the second half.
Kilpatrick finished with 14 points for Cincinnati, while Justin Jackson and Jermaine Sanders had 10 each. Jackson grabbed eight rebounds. Sanders' 3 with 12.2 seconds left from the top of the key set the stage for the final thrilling seconds.
The Huskies did not exactly set the court on fire in the first half. Actually, it was a tale of two worlds—he Good Huskies and the Bad Huskies. Over the first 10 minutes, Connecticut scored 21 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the field with only three turnovers. Then, in the second portion of the half, the Bad Huskies took over, scoring just 6 points on 3-for-10 shooting while handing the ball over to the Bearcasts eight times.
After Neils Giffey drilled a three-pointer giving Connecticut a 21-16 lead with 9:58 remaining until halftime, Cincinnati took control of the game, scoring 16 of the game's next 20 points to take a 21-25 lead with 1:46 remaining in the half. A jumper by DeAndre Daniels cut the Bearcats' lead to four, as Cincinnati took a 21-27 lead into the locker room at intermission.
Cincinnati scored 18 points in the paint as opposed to just 8 by Connecticut, and the Bearcats capitalized on Husky miscues, scoring 12 points after UConn turnovers.
After the Huskies scored the first five points in the second stanza to give Connecticut a one-point lead, the Bearcats quickly regained control and 41-34 lead with 5:54 gone. But the momentum swung sharply over to the Huskies, who went on a 17-2 run to gain a 51-43 advantage with 4:30 left in regulation.
"UConn played great defense and played great as a team," said the Bearcats' Justin Jackson, who finished the game with 10 points and eight rebounds. "We couldn't execute in the end, but we came back in the last three minutes and [did] what we needed to do."
Jackson was referring to a late 9-2 run that cut an eight-point Connecticut lead to just one with 14 seconds remaining in the game. Sean Kirkpatrick, whom many observers feel should have been named the conference's Player of the Year—won, of course, by Napier—missed on a layup that would have given the Bearcats a one-point lead with just three seconds remaining.
"S.K. [Kirkpatrick] hits that shot 99 out of 100 times," added Jackson. "I can't tell you why, it just happens."