HARTFORD — The Huskies weren't expecting any less, or any more. They knew the kind of game Cincinnati would make it, and they were ready to rumble.
"I told them it was going to be 90 percent punches and 10 percent plays," coach Kevin Ollie said Saturday, raspy voice and all following UConn's 51-45 victory over the 11th-ranked Bearcats before 16,294 at the XL Center. "There weren't going to be a lot of X's and O's; there was going to be a lot of punches thrown. Thank God, we threw the last punch."
The last jabs came at the free throw line, where UConn scored its last 10 points. Ryan Boatright's dunk, off a pass from Shabazz Napier, gave the Huskies a 41-32 lead with 7:32 to play and they did not score again from the field.
"We said, 'if nobody scores the rest of the game, we'll take it,'" UConn's Lasan Kromah said.
With its defense suffocating from start to finish, UConn did not need another field goal and won the lowest scoring game in which it has been involved since the NCAA championship game against Butler, won by UConn 53-41, three years ago. Not since a 46-40 win over Villanova in February 2002 has a Husky team won with so few points.
"We've got to make shots, we've got to rebound better," Ollie said. "But I like W's. However we get 'em, we get 'em."
The Huskies (23-6, 11-5 in the American Athletic Conference) figure to reappear in the national rankings with this win, and should feel better about their chances in the AAC Tournament. The Bearcats are 24-5, 13-3, having lost to Louisville and UConn in the last two games.
"We want to make sure we understand how good we can be," said Shabazz Napier, who led the Huskies with 18 points and 11 rebounds. "Now, I think guys understand when we miss shots, you've got to continue to play on both ends of the court. Basketball is about two sides of the court."
UConn shot 31.3 percent, making 15 of 48 from the floor, 3 of 14 three-point attempts. Even their free throw shooting, 18-for-25, was below par. But Cincinnati, 13-for-48 or 27.1 percent from the floor, 1-for-10 on threes in the second half and 13-for-21 from the line, could not do better, or as well.
"We were awful from pillar to post," Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "We were bad. Our offense was bad, our passing — careless turnovers. We weren't connected."
Though Cincinnati outrebounded UConn 44-30, the Huskies offset that by inducing 19 turnovers, with only 10 of their own.
Sean Kilpatrick, who came in averaging 20.5 points and scored 26 in the Bearcats' win over UConn on Feb. 6, was held to 16 on Saturday, going 4-for-16 from the floor, with Lasan Kromah and, at times, freshman Terrence Samuel hounding him. Justin Jackson, Cincinnati's other top defensive player, had only three points before fouling out.
"We just wanted to make things difficult for them," Kromah said. "With Kilpatrick, limit his touches and really have a whole team defense towards him."
The Huskies started out 2-for-14 and Cincinnati 1-for-12, setting the tone for a defensive struggle early on. Napier put UConn ahead, to stay as it turned out, with a baseline move and layup with 26 seconds to go in the first half. UConn started the second half with a 13-4 run, or maybe it should be called a 13-4 crawl, over a span of 12:08. Napier helped cause a turnover near midcourt and ended up scoring off a pass from Kromah, and hit a three-point shot on the next possession to help extend the lead. Kromah (nine points) scored on a layup to make it 39-29 with 8:40 left.
Then it was a matter of holding on.
"We kept our composure," said Napier, who hit 5 of 6 from the line down the stretch. Phil Nolan was 2-for-2, Kromah, Amida Brimah and Terrence Samuel each hit one shot, and it was enough.
"It's March. From here on our it's war," Kilpatrick said. "There are not going to be any easy games. We know our conference is no slouch, so you have to come out and play hard."
Cincinnati's frustration manifested itself in a heated exchange between coach Mick Cronin and referee Ted Valentine, and in a charging foul called on Kilpatrick, who tried to run over a firmly planted Nolan with 30 seconds left, allowing the Huskies to close it out.
"You're playing Cincinnati, man, you know going in it's going to be physical," said Boatright, who had seven points, four rebounds and three assists. "You know you're going to get hit; you've got to hit back. Have a strong mind, stay in the game."Copyright © 2015, CT Now