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UConn fights past Memphis

By Gavin Keefe

Publication: The Day

Published February 16. 2014 4:00AM
Jessica Hill/ AP Photo
Memphis' David Pellom grabs a handful of Shabazz Napier's jersey during Saturday's Top 25 matchup in Hartford. Napier scored a career-high 34 points as the No. 24 Huskies beat the No. 20 Tigers 86-81 in overtime.

Hartford - UConn's tight brotherhood bond was severely tested on Saturday afternoon.

But the Huskies stood strong and remained together while fighting to hold off an aggressive and talented American Athletic Conference opponent in No. 20 Memphis.

After an exhausting and high-intensity regulation and overtime, No. 24 UConn was the last team standing, securing an important 86-81 victory before a vocal sold-out crowd at the XL Center.

The Huskies relied on their competitive heart and tight bond to pull out their 20th win, matching their win total from last season.

"I just like how our guys stayed in the middle of the ring," coach Kevin Ollie said. "I keep saying this: they just kept fighting. That's the great thing about this team. And they do it together. And brothers are going to fight here and there and sometimes they get mad at Coach.

"… But at the end of the day, they love each other and find a way to win. They kept looking through the mud and found a gold nugget."

The Huskies (20-5, 8-4) moved into a tie for fourth place with the Tigers (19-6, 8-4) while posting their sixth win in seven games.

Their stellar backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright led the charge. Napier scored 25 of his career-high 34 points after intermission while Boatright produced in the clutch as well, finishing with a season-high 21 points. The dynamic duo went a combined 20-for-24 from the foul line.

Boatright scored eight of his team's 17 points in overtime, including scoring the go-ahead basket on a driving layup with 3:48 remaining and then added a 3-pointer. He was 2 for 10 from the field in regulation.

UConn won despite shooting just 39 percent and allowing Memphis to convert 55 percent and win the rebounding battle (38-28). The Huskies countered by outscoring the Tigers from the foul line, 29-6, and committing only six turnovers while forcing 18.

The Huskies also made more big plays.

"When you get to this level of competition in these bigger games, it comes down to execution and making big plays," Boatright said. "So even though they outrebounded us, we got the rebounds we were supposed to and we made the plays we were supposed to make."

Perhaps the biggest rebound came from sophomore forward Phil Nolan late in regulation.

Trailing 69-66, UConn came out of a timeout with 1:15 left. The Huskies watched a seven-point lead (58-51) gradually turn into a 3-point deficit.

When Napier, who scored 14 of UConn's 17 points at one point in the second half, misfired from 3-point range, Nolan grabbed the rebound in traffic. The ball ended up back in the trusty hands of Napier, who drew a foul while sinking a tough driving layup. He finished off the 3-point play to tie the score at 69 with 52 seconds remaining.

"To be the player I want to be, you have to step up in those moments," Napier said.

Memphis had a chance to answer, but junior DeAndre Daniels blocked Shaq Goodwin's shot, setting off a wild scramble for the ball. Tempers flared after the whistle blew. Officials and both head coaches stepped in to calm things down.

Officials ruled the shot clock had expired and put 16.8 seconds on the clock. Napier found room to launch a shot just inside the 3-point line but it spun out at the buzzer.

"I thought it was going in," Napier said. "I call those shots 'toilet flush.' Sometimes they go in and sometimes they clog up, and that's exactly what happened."

UConn battled through bouts of inconsistency. Memphis guards continually beat their defenders off the dribble and hit layups. The Tigers finished with 42 points in the paint and also scored 20 points in transition while senior Joe Jackson had 24 points.

But the Huskies survived and swept the season series.

"It was a Connecticut win," Ollie said. "It wasn't the prettiest game on our end. At the end of the day, we found a way. That's why I love this team. .. They might be small… but you can't measure their heart. They've got the biggest heart ever."

g.keefe@theday.com

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