HARTFORD— Daniel Hamilton wasn't going to let another second-half lead slip through the Huskies' fingertips. Banged up, struggling and strapped with foul trouble for most of the night, UConn's star sophomore came up huge in arguably the biggest stretch of the season.
The Huskies bolstered their tournament resume on Thursday night at the XL Center, defeating No. 21 SMU, 68-62 in front of 15,564. In the midst of a four-game stretch that could likely decide its postseason fate, UConn erased the recent memories of second-half struggles and closed out the Mustangs on the back of its defense and timely shooting from Hamilton and freshman point guard Jalen Adams.
Hit with two quick fouls, Hamilton was just 1-of-6 from the floor in the first half as the Huskies (19-7, 9-4) went into the halftime break tied with SMU, 31-31. Both teams traded bucket after bucket to start the second half, before a Hamilton jumper gave UConn a 57-52 lead with 6:22 to play. An Amida Brimah (16 points; 8 rebounds) flush from Omar Calhoun gave the Huskies their biggest lead of game, 61-52 with 4:45 remaining.
Then with the shot clock winding down, Hamilton knocked down a long three from the top of the key- sending the fans into a frenzy as UConn extended its advantage to 64-55.
However, the collective groans of the XL Center were audible as SMU refused to go away. A Jordan Tolbert dunk; another long ball from Sterling Brown; and a Nic Moore jumper (14 points) brought the Mustangs (21-4, 9-4) within two, 64-62 with 1:13 left.
But unlike in the loss to Temple and the near collapse against Tulsa, it was Hamilton who made the key plays that have eluded the Huskies at times this year. Hamilton got into the lane and buried one of his patented leaners, putting his team up 66-62 with 48 seconds to go. The sophomore would sink a pair of free throws in the closing seconds, sealing the victory. In total, Hamilton was 3-of-5 in the second half, adding six rebounds and four assists to his final stat line.
Adams was also limited in the first half with foul trouble but was electric after the break. He scored six of his nine points after intermission, slicing through the Mustangs' defense and converting tough shots in the lane with ease.
"When we got into situations where we had to win, our big-time players stepped up," head coach Kevin Ollie said after the game. "D-Ham and Jalen, woo, that was exciting out there."
Brimah had his best game since returning from injury, anchoring the defense with five blocks and helping UConn to 12-5 advantage in second-chance points and a 26-20 edge in the paint. The Huskies held the Mustangs to 43 percent shooting, including limiting SMU to just two makes in its final nine attempts.
Shonn Miller was once again a steady force, scoring 12 points and hauling in seven boards.
The Huskies will head to Cincinnati on Saturday for a rematch of a brutal, one-point loss from last month. At 9-4 in the conference, UConn is right in the thick of things in the AAC, just a half game behind Temple for the top-overall spot.
Photo gallery credits: Ian Bethune/UConnReport.com