I remember after UConn beat Butler 53-41 to win the 2011 National Championship, all anyone said was that the game was a horrible, ugly mess and one of the worst national championships ever played. My response to that? Maybe so, but never has such an ugly game been so beautiful.
The same could easily be said about this afternoon's 51-45 win over Cincinnati. The game more closely resembled rugby or boxing than basketball, but UConn did what it had to do to win, and in doing so the Huskies got a huge resume booster and rejuvenated their hopes of a decent American Conference tournament seed.
Like against Butler, UConn's victory came as a result of a suffocating defensive performance that essentially snuffed out any offensive scheme Cincinnati tried to bring. The Huskies double-teamed Sean Kilpatrick and the Bearcats' big men all day, forcing 20 turnovers while holding Cincinnati to 27.1 percent shooting on the day. Kilpatrick got his numbers, leading the team with 16 points, but they came on a 4-for-16 shooting performance, hardly the kind of efficiency he's normally known for.
Most notably, after going into halftime up 26-25, UConn held Cincinnati to only four points over the first 10 minutes or so of the second half. If not for an impressive defensive effort by Cincinnati, the Huskies could have easily run away with this one. Unfortunately, the Bearcats kept it close enough that they were able to creep back towards the end, but UConn managed to hold strong and eventually finish them off.
Outside of Kilpatrick, Cincinnati got essentially nothing from the rest of its roster. Shaquille Thomas has eight points and five rebounds, and Titus Rubles had six points and 13 rebounds and Ge'Lawn Guyn had six points, and that was basically it.
UConn, meanwhile, got 18 points and 11 rebounds from Shabazz Napier, who struggled from the field with 4-for-13 shooting, but hit nine of his 10 free throws, making the most of his frequent trips to the line. Lasan Kromah had nine points, Ryan Boatright seven points and even Terrance Samuel got some action, recording a key steal and assist along with three points.
Because Cincinnati is ranked No. 11 and UConn is currently outside of the polls, people will call this an upset. But I think most people who have watched UConn play all season know that the Huskies winning this game isn't too big a surprise. No, the real upset to come out of this game is the fact that Mick Cronin managed to explode on the officials pretty much continuously throughout the second half without managing to be hit with a technical foul or ejected.
Seriously, have you ever seen a more patient officiating crew? Cronin was literally running out on the court the whole half screaming at anybody who came within 15 feet of him for almost 10 full minutes, and the refs basically just shrugged him off like a flea or something. I'm glad they didn't toss him though, seeing Mick Cronin storm around angrily is one of my favorite sights in college basketball.
Regardless of how it came about, a win is a win for UConn, and this one is one of the biggest of the season for the Huskies. Now at 23-6 overall and 11-5 in the American, UConn could have a chance to move up in the conference standings depend on how things play out over the last few games. With a winnable game against Rutgers and a season-ending showdown with Louisville on the horizon, the Huskies have a chance to finish the season strong and enter tournament season with some serious momentum.