Looking over UConn's season, a few patterns jump out. They put together stretches where they look like a complete team, rattling off 3 or 4 wins in a row. Then, they'll get beaten handily, like against SMU. Other times, they'll lose a heart-breaker. This game had a little bit of both in tonight's three-point loss on a night where they were down by 15 at one point. The Huskies (14-11, 7-6 AAC) have now played six games this season decided by less than four points with a 1-5 record.
Tonight, the Memphis Tigers (16-10, 8-5 AAC) imposed their will early and did just enough to hold off the Huskies. The first half was highlighted by a skirmish which sparked a UConn run to get within six at the half despite being thoroughly outplayed. UConn hung around despite Memphis repeatedly building double-digit leads, but a number of questionable calls, including a technical foul on Ryan Boatright, helped make the difference for Memphis.
Midway through the first half, Ryan Boatright found himself surrounded on the Memphis sideline. Within seconds, Boat's teammates came charging into the fray and before we knew it, Boat was staggering backwards out of that huddle, clutching his face. The TV cameras found him later holding gauze to his mouth, dabbing away blood. No fouls were called, no technichals assessed.
Admittedly, it was refreshing to see the refs swallow the whistle, but at time like this, something should have been called. Boat would have to sit for the next few minutes and did not look like himself for most of the game. Boat's biggest contribution of the game was for Memphis. In the second half with the Huskies roaring back, he was whistled for a bad foul call while defending the ball. With his arms up indignantly, turned to the ref, he said something. Whistle. Technical. Two shots and the ball for the Tigers.
Those points would come back to haunt UConn.
The Huskies turned to Daniel Hamilton to control the offense and he responded beautifully. Hamilton played his best game of the season, finishing with a career high 25 points, 13 boards and 7 assists. At times, Hamilton has shown flashes of this type of dominant all-around game, but tonight was the first time he really put it all together. He played with confidence and was daring with the ball. This was a great sign for all fans who think Hamilton will grow into the next UConn great. His three pointer at the buzzer was a good look that rimmed out. Unfortunately, it appeared to be a poorly drawn play and Boat got the ball to Hamilton late.
The rest of the team left Hamilton on an island. Amida Brimah chipped in 19 points, coming on dunks and fouls shots and Rodney Purvis hit for 11 points but only shot 5-14 from the floor. Boat had 11 points on 6 shots, but the defense keyed on him and kept him out of the game. So, despite strong performances from Hamilton and Brimah, the Huskies were lacking in offensive support.
Memphis sophomore Austin Nichols suited up despite an ankle injury that had him out for a while. It was a game-time decision though it was expected that he would sit. Instead, he came out ready to play and brought the business to the Huskies front line. He exploded for 16 points, 8 rebounds, 7 block, and 3 assists. He played one of the best all around games from a big guy UConn has seen all year. Guard Kedren Johnson added 21 points on 4-5 from three point range to lead the Tigers. Johnson had entered tonight's game shooting 7-35 on the season from behind the arc. Only this UConn team would an opponent break out like that.
Trailing by 15 with 12:49 to go, the Huskies looked in danger of getting smoked for the second straight contest. Then, UConn got tough and went to work chipping away at the lead. It was a slow, methodical comeback that unfortunately fell short. The Huskies managed to cut the deficit to 4 with 1:24 left in the game when Phil Nolan committed a devastating, and silly, loose ball foul. Nichols went 1-2 from the line to bring the lead back up to 5, seemingly putting the game out reach.
As the game went back and forth towards the end, the Purvis and Hamilton hit last minute threes to give UConn a fighting chance. With 0:09 left, Brimah punched in a dunk to bring the score to 74-72. Memphis got the ball into Markel Crawford's hands as UConn fouled. He went 1-of-2 from the line, giving the Huskies one final hope. A timeout from Memphis gave Ollie a chance to draw up a play. With so much attention on Boatright, the ball found its way to Hamilton at the top. Shot up, in and out. Game over.
It's just been one of those years for the Huskies. For much of this game, UConn seemed lost in a daze. Ryan Boatright was a non-factor, Purvis was 0-6 from downtown until the last minute of the game and they had 12 shots blocked. The Memphis Tigers pushed them around until the last ten minutes of that game. With five games left in the regular season, all that's left is to play out the string. Let's gear up for the conference tournament. We need it.