The UConn Huskies (23-6, 11-5 AAC) earned a hard-fought, 51-45 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats (24-5, 13-3 AAC) at home Saturday afternoon.
Let the Madness begin... #UConn takes down #11 Cincinnati at home, 51-45!— FOX Sports: Hoops (@HoopsonFOX) March 1, 2014
It was a close contest in the first half, but the Huskies were able to mount a lead in the second half by locking down on defense and getting some of their easy, close-range shots to finally fall.
They let the Bearcats back into it late but ultimately closed it out with Shabazz Napier free throws in the final moments.
The official UConn basketball Twitter feed noted that there was a packed house in attendance to check out the final game at Hartford's XL Center in the 2013-14 campaign, with one more home game still to come at on-campus venue Gampel Pavilion:
#UConn: Last game of the season at the XL Center is a sellout --- 16,294!!! Thanks for the supportc— UConn Men's Hoops (@UConnMBB) March 1, 2014
Give the raucous crowd credit, as they were able to rattle the Bearcats and inspire the Huskies to play great defense in the contest, especially at the start of the second half.
With just under eight minutes left to play, Cincinnati had mustered up a mere four points on 2-of-11 shooting in the second half:
Michael Grant of the Courier-Journal attempted to explain why the Bearcats were not scoring the rock:
Cincinnati has given up baskets for Lent. #Bearcats— Michael Grant (@MichaelGrant_CJ) March 1, 2014
Cincinnati head coach Mike Cronin was extremely upset with the officiating in the game and at one point had to be restrained by his players:
However, referees called the Bearcats for just one more foul (20) than their opponent (19).
Poor free-throw shooting was the big reason Cincinnati could not climb back into this one late in the game. David Borges of the New Haven Register pointed out that the team missed six straight attempts from the charity stripe at one point:
Six missed FT's in a row by Cincy. That's no way to mount a comeback.— David Borges (@DaveBorges) March 1, 2014
The Bearcats were just 13-of-21 from the line, while UConn went 18-of-25. Cincy had a sizable rebounding advantage, 44-30, but was not able to capitalize and turned the ball over 20 times compared to the Huskies' 10 giveaways.
UConn took a 26-25 lead into the locker room at halftime, earning a narrow lead after a gritty 20 minutes of play. Both teams struggled to put the ball through the hoop, exemplified by Cincinnati hitting on a mere two of 14 attempts from inside the arc.
Scintillating long-range shooting kept the Bearcats alive in the first half, as they dropped five of their eight three-point attempts through the bottom of the net.
UConn’s victory ensured that the team split the regular-season series with its opponent. Cincinnati won first matchup at home between the familiar AAC foes, 63-58, but was not able to get it done here.
Let’s take a look at some of the notable performers and see what’s next for each squad.
Shabazz Napier, G, UConn: B+
Napier assumed his usual role of hero for the Huskies. Per UConn’s Twitter feed, the senior guard compiled his fifth double-double of the season:
He finished the contest with 18 points on 4-of-13 shooting, 11 rebounds, two assists and two steals. He was the only Huskies player to reach double figures in scoring.
Prior to the contest, Cronin emphasized Cincinnati's need to shut Napier down to have a chance, per The Associated Press (via Fox Sports):
When Shabazz Napier plays great, they're great. He can beat you by himself. We did a great job on him a few weeks ago, but knowing what a great player he is, he's going to be looking for redemption. We need to do maybe an even better job in making sure he doesn't go crazy against us.
Napier eclipsed the 16 points he scored in the previous matchup between these opponents and was a catalyst for his side getting the victory. His percentages left something to be desired, but his work on the glass and clutch free throws (9-of-10 shooting) helped the Huskies pull away.
Sean Kilpatrick, G, Cincinnati: C-
Kilpatrick tried to put on a scoring clinic, but the senior guard ultimately was not able to find his rhythm nor will his squad to a second victory against UConn this season.
The Bearcats star finished the day with 16 points on mediocre 4-of-16 shooting, including 2-of-8 from beyond the arc. He chipped in five rebounds and three assists during his time on the floor.
Kilpatrick faced a constant stream of double-teams from the Huskies defense, and he struggled to find his range. He also wasn’t able to keep a handle on the orange, coughing up a game-high seven turnovers.
That poor ball security ultimately cost Cincinnati the “W” in an immensely close matchup.
Adam Amin of ESPN commented on the number of skilled backcourt players involved in this game and conference in general:
I watch Napier play. Think he should be AAC POY. Then I see Kilpatrick and think HE should win. Then Russ Smith…HE should win. It's nuts.— Adam Amin (@adamamin) March 1, 2014
Ryan Boatright, G, UConn: B-
Boatright is known as a streaky player, and his shooting performance bordered on sabotage for the Huskies.
The junior guard has been shooting a mediocre 39.5 field-goal percentage on the season but submarined that figure with his 3-of-12 outing from the field against the Bearcats.
He did contribute four rebounds, three assists and four steals, the latter a testament to his solid defense against Kilpatrick and the rest of the Cincinnati guards.
That ended up being the difference-maker in this game and a reason why Boatright made a positive impact despite not getting his shots to drop.
UConn should re-enter the Top 25 rankings after this win, just in time for the end of the season. The team was on the outskirts of both the AP and USA Today polls before picking up a signature win against an AAC rival Saturday.
The team has two games left to close out the 2013-14 campaign, with the next matchup coming at home against Rutgers on March 5. UConn will try to push its current winning streak to three against the lowly Scarlet Knights.
The Huskies’ finale will be a much-anticipated rematch at No. 7 Louisville on March 8. The Cardinals won in Storrs, 76-64, on Jan. 18.
UConn is a near lock to make the 68-team field of the upcoming NCAA tournament, but a great performance in the inaugural AAC tournament could earn a quality seed and put it in position to make a run during March Madness.
Cincinnati will return home looking to rebound from this loss, its second in a row, against the No. 21 Memphis Tigers on March 6. The Bearcats are now 2-3 since SMU snapped their 15-game winning streak Feb. 8.
Which team will go deeper in March?
It’s a concerning stretch for the program at the worst time. Cincy will try to gain some momentum with a big win over Memphis and end the year with a confidence-building victory over a cupcake opponent in Rutgers.
Much like UConn, the Bearcats are essentially to a lock to make the NCAA tournament but could drastically improve their seeding with a victory in the AAC tourney.