Defense, balanced scoring lifts UConn in American title game
ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) The UConn Huskies are back in the NCAA Tournament and are confident they've got what it takes to make another strong run.
''I think our style travels very, very well because we play defense,'' coach Kevin Ollie said after Sunday's 72-58 victory over Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game gave his team the league's automatic NCAA berth.
''You play defense, and that allows us to win championships, and that's what we hang our hats on,'' Ollie added. ''No matter where we're at, we're going to play defense, we're going to give our offense an opportunity to step up.''
Up next is a trip to Des Moines, Iowa, as the No. 9 seed in the South Region. The Huskies (24-10) will face eight-seeded Colorado in the first round.
UConn won its fourth national championship two years ago, but weren't eligible to make the NCAA field in 2015.
''It's been a long time, it feels like,'' senior Omar Calhoun said. ''Last year was disappointing, but we knew when we started the season, we were going to work extremely hard to get back to the top. ... We just want to make sure we stay focused. The journey's not done.''
Shonn Miller and Sterling Gibbs scored 13 points each and Daniel Hamilton had a double-double for the third straight day for the Huskies, who needed Jalen Adams' 65-foot, buzzer-beating shot to force a fourth overtime in the quarterfinals against Cincinnati.
''It's definitely a wonderful shot, but we had to be in that situation to get that shot,'' Ollie said.
''It's a lot of players stepped up, a lot of things stepped up, in our favor, and the guys just stayed together. If you don't stay together, you're never going to get that moment. ... That's the fine line,'' he added. ''If that shot didn't go in, we're the worst team. We were not qualified to make the NCAA Tournament. Everybody was going to say that. But we knew we had a good team.''
Hamilton had 12 points and 11 rebounds, Rodney Purvis scored 12 points and Calhoun came off the bench to hit two crucial 3-pointers and finish with 10 points on Sunday.
Memphis (19-15) trimmed a 16-point deficit to four before Gibbs made a 3-pointer to begin a 15-2 run for UConn, which made 14 of 16 free throws after halftime to wrap up its first conference tournament title in five years.
The Huskies lost the American final each of the past two seasons. When Memphis made a final push to get back in the game, pulling within 62-54 with 3:07 left, Calhoun made a long 3 and Purvis followed with a layup in transition to enable UConn to put it away.
American rookie of the year Dedric Lawson led Memphis with 21 points and 11 rebounds.
But Shaq Goodwin, the Tigers' second-leading scorer, was limited to six points and spent a critical stretch of the second half on the bench with four fouls. Ricky Tarrant Jr., who fouled out, joined Lawson in double figures with 11 points.
''Nobody expected us to be here today, so ... we're proud of ourselves,'' said Tarrant, one of three senior starters for the sixth-seeded Tigers. ''Of course, we wanted to win, but we, every day, every practice, every game, left it all on the line.''
UConn won its fourth straight game since consecutive losses to Houston and SMU the final week of the regular season. They survived the four-overtime thriller to beat Cincinnati in the conference tourney quarterfinals before beating regular-season champion Temple 77-62 in Saturday's semifinals.
Hamilton was a catalyst in all three games. He had a career-best 32 points and 12 rebounds in 55 minutes Friday, 19 points and 11 rebounds in 34 minutes Saturday and hit a couple of big baskets against Memphis, despite finishing just 3 of 11 from the field in 37 minutes.
UConn's last conference tournament championship came in 2011, when it won a record-tying seventh Big East title. The Huskies lost the American final to SMU in 2015 and Louisville two years ago.
Defense was a big part of this one. Memphis shot 37.5 percent, including 5 of 16 from behind the arc.
Trahson Burrell shot 3 of 14 for the Tigers. Goodwin missed his first three shots and finished 3 for 9 in 37 minutes.
UConn: Swept season regular-season series from Memphis, winning by three at home on Jan. 9 and 20 on the road on Feb. 4. ... It's the sixth time the UConn men's and women's teams have won conference tourneys in the same year. ... The Huskies played most of the second half with Amida Brimah, Phillip Nolan and Steven Enoch on the bench with four fouls.
Memphis: Coach Josh Pastner is 3-1 in conference tournament championship games. ... The Tigers were in the American final for the first time. They lost their opening game the past two years, losing to UConn in 2014 and Temple in 2015. ... Lawson's 17th double-double tied Keith Lee's record for the most in a season by a Memphis freshman.
UConn faces Colorado in the NCAA Tournament.
Memphis awaits word on a postseason berth.
''We're keeping our fingers crossed that we can slip into the NIT,'' Pastner said.