By Neill Ostrout
MEMPHIS, Tenn. _ The UConn basketball team, both as a program that has won three national titles and as a current group that still has designs on winning another, refuses to accept moral victories.
That being said, losing to the defending national champion and the nation’s hottest team by a somewhat respectable 10 points _ exactly one week after losing to the same team by 33 _ made the Huskies feel the slightest bit better about themselves Saturday.
Louisville beat UConn 71-61 at FedExForum in the championship game of the American Athletic Conference tournament, continuing its domination of the Huskies but also providing the Huskies with a glimmer of hope.
“Losing is losing but it’s definitely better to lose by 10 than by 30,” UConn guard Ryan Boatright said.
Louisville had won 11 of its last 12 games, and had blitzed its last three opponents by an average of 41 points. Included in that, of course, was an 81-48 shellacking of UConn seven days ago _ UConn’s most lopsided loss in 22 years.
But the Huskies, though they never really threatened to knock off the Cardinals, didn’t let the game get away from them either.
“We didn’t come down here just to win a semifinal game. We came to win a championship. It didn’t happen but I think our guys gave it their all,” UConn coach Kevin Ollie said.
Montrezl Harrell had 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead Louisville (29-5), while tournament MVP Russ Smith added 19 points.
DeAndre Daniels had 17 points and 10 rebounds for the Huskies. Shabazz Napier chipped in 16 points and Amida Brimah 14.
For UConn (26-8), the tournament’s No. 4 seed, it was the team’s third loss to the Cardinals this season.
In addition, Louisville had won nine of the last 10 meetings between the teams. The lone Husky win in the last five years was in the 2011 Big East tournament championship game.
On Saturday the Huskies fell behind by 20 early in the second half and it looked for a moment as if Louisville was going to run another opponent out of the gym. But UConn showed some determination and at least kept the score respectable.
“We tried to keep them at bay as much as possible but at the end of the day, you have to rebound. You can’t give up 16 offensive rebounds and expect to win,” Ollie said.
In last week’s game, UConn trailed by 12 at halftime. This time around, the Huskies seemed to be in better shape as the opening half wound down.
An alley-oop from Napier to Amida Brimah made it 27-21. A six-point deficit isn’t something to celebrate, but the Huskies had been battling hard and probably would have been relatively pleased with that margin considering the caliber of the opponent.
But Louisville did what it often does to UConn, grabbing offensive rebounds and forcing turnovers to seize control. The Cardinals closed the half with a 10-2 run as Luke Hancock and Terry Rozier hit 3-pointers. The former ended the opening stanza with a steal from Napier and a strong finish on the fast break over Boatright to make it 37-23.
“We dug a hole too deep. If we could have went into the half down five, seven, it’s a whole different game,” Boatright said.
Smith scored 42 points in Louisville’s semifinal win over Houston Friday, the third-highest total in that program’s history. Harrell has been dominating the paint like no one else in the country lately.
The Cardinals, who are departing for the ACC after this season, seem a solid choice as a No. 1 seed for the upcoming NCAA Tournament. But coach Rick Pitino is realistic about that scenario.
“Do I think we should be? Yes. Do I think we will be? No,” Pitino said.
UConn, despite its struggles, still has plans similar to those of the Cardinals. Ollie and his players are still aiming high.
“The NCAA Tournament is coming up. The main goal is to win a national championship,” Boatright said. “If we get to Dallas, everybody will forget about this loss.”
Said Ollie: “Now we go into the next tournament. We want to win a national championship. I still believe in this team. We have to clean some things up but I liked our execution in the second half (Saturday).”
UConn forward Tyler Olander, who missed Friday’s game with a stomach bug, was back in uniform and on the bench but did not play.
Since joining the Big East in 1979, UConn is now 7-4 in conference tournament championship games.
Napier’s three assists Saturday gave him 619 in his career, tying him with Ollie for third place on UConn’s all-time list.
Russ Smith, Louisville (MVP)
Isaiah Sykes, UCF
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati
Shabazz Napier, UConn
Chris Jones, Louisville
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville.