STORRS, Conn.— It took a little while to get going but the Huskies rediscovered that winning feeling against UCF on Sunday afternoon.
A bit sluggish out of the gates following senior day ceremonies, UConn ran away from the Knights in the second half, winning its regular-season finale at Gampel Pavilion, 67-46, in front of a sell-out crowd 10,167. Coming off two straight disappointing performances, the Huskies desperately needed this win heading into their American Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinal matchup with Cincinnati on Friday at 2 p.m.
UConn (21-10, 11-7) opened the game 5-of-20 from the floor and struggled early to contain the 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall in the paint. But an 11-2 run fueled by Sterling Gibbs, Rodney Purvis and Jalen Adams late in the first half helped the Huskies jump to a 30-24 halftime lead.
Daniel Hamilton played just four minutes in the first half after committing three turnovers but the sophomore got UConn rolling after the break. Hamilton scored all of his team-high 12 points in an 18-4 second-half run, staying turnover free and adding seven boards, a steal and an assist to his stat line.
"He came out [in the second half] and just played wonderfully great," said head coach Kevin Ollie. "It started on the defensive end- with him I'm just trying to get him to understand when he plays defense it allows his offense to be better instead of just playing offense, trying to make something happen."
Hamilton's spark swelled the Huskies' lead to 20 as the defense clamped down on Fall (13 points; 5 rebounds), limiting the Knights (12-17, 6-12) to 34.8 percent shooting and forcing 17 turnovers. UConn shot 52.2 percent in the second half, including going 4-of-9 from three.
"[Defensively] we were just playing hard, I thought our pick-and-roll defense was great," Ollie said. "People have been putting us in a lot of pick-and-rolls and we haven't been covering them up to our ability, playing with that relentless effort. I thought we did a good job today."
Ollie started his four scholarship seniors in Gibbs (10 points, 3 rebounds), Shonn Miller (8 points; 6 rebounds), Phil Nolan (2 points, 1 rebound) and Omar Calhoun (6 points; 4 assists) and even got Nnamdi Amilo in the game with just over two minutes to play. Amilo got into the scoring column with a pair of free throws. UConn's bench outscored UCF's, 29-6 and the Huskies had a 10-0 advantage on the break.
UConn came into Sunday's contest with 66 percent shot of securing an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, according to teamrankings.com. Adding another win, even over a young, inexperienced Knights team, should bolster the Huskies' chances of advancing to the dance. However, their ticket remains far from punched. UConn will face Cincinnati in the quarterfinals of the AAC tournament on Friday in Orlando, Florida. The Bearcats defeated the Huskies twice this season and sits on the edge of the tournament discussion much like UConn.
"We still have work to do- we don't want to put it in [the selection committee's] hands, we want to make sure we are in there for sure," said Ollie. "I want to take every minute and coach these guys the way I know I can coach them and make sure they believe...We can't play like we are in the tournament or anything like that, we are fighting for our lives. We want to play with that desperation and hopefully, these guys understand that."