ORLANDO, Fla. - A rough season for the UConn men's basketball team came to a rough ending.
SMU beat UConn 80-73 Thursday afternoon in the opening round of the American Athletic Conference Tournament before a scant crowd at the Amway Center.
The ninth-seeded Mustangs move on to face top-seeded Cincinnati here on Friday (noon, ESPN2) in the quarterfinals of the event.
The Huskies fell behind early and were trailing by 21 points with just over 11 minutes to play. They rallied to pull within four in a rather harrowing final minute for SMU, but could not complete the unlikely comeback.
“'I've got to give [Connecticut] a lot of credit, they were fighting to the bitter end,” SMU coach Tim Jankovich said. “They started pressing, making the game crazy, but our guys handled that very well and hit free throws down the stretch.”
UConn’s leading scorer Jalen Adams, who sprained his left thumb late in the Huskies’ regular season finale against Houston, had the appendage heavily taped for Thursday’s game. He finished with six points on 3-of-11 shooting, six rebounds, five assists and five turnovers.
UConn, which won this championship the last time it was contested here, was obviously hoping to capture the same magic it had in 2016 when Adams’ legendary three-quarter-court heave helped beat Cincinnati in four overtimes.
That never materialized.
Instead UConn (14-18) saw its season end quickly.
It ends what is the second-straight losing season for a program that hadn’t even been through one of them in 30 years before 2017. It’s also the first time ever UConn has lost at least 17 games in consecutive seasons.
Christian Vital scored 24 points to lead UConn. Antwoine Anderson added 19 points, the most he’s scored as a Husky.
Ben Emelogu led SMU with 23 points, one shy of his career high. Center Akoy Agau added a career-best 21 points for the Mustangs.
SMU (17-15) had lost eight of its last nine games and was coming off a loss to last-place South Florida.
But the Mustangs were utterly dominant in the first half against the Huskies Thursday. SMU made seven 3-pointers, hit 52 percent of its shots overall, and took a commanding 42-23 lead at the half.
SMU guard Shake Milton, who missed the final nine games of the regular season after breaking a bone in his hand, was rumored to be returning this week but the Mustangs’ best player remained on the sidelines.
With only seven scholarship players at his disposal, SMU coach Tim Jankovich still found the perfect combination to pound the Huskies.
Terry Larrier, who missed nine of his first 10 shots from the field, had 12 points for UConn.
During the only regular season clash between the Huskies and Mustangs, UConn won 63-52 and held SMU to a season-low shooting percentage. But that trend did not continue into the postseason.
The Huskies made only one of their first six shots in the game, and found themselves trailing 9-2 in the early going. Agau, who averages 4.2 points per game, surprisingly had six of those.
The Mustangs then began to heat from outside, hitting a trio of 3-pointers in a one-minute span to take a 22-13 lead. It only got worse for the Huskies from there.
Jahmal McMurray and Emelogu continued to connect from the outside, and Agau was still able to get free in the paint.
Trailing by 19 at halftime, the Huskies spent a few scant minutes in their locker room before heading back onto the court.
And in the opening moments, it appeared as if they might be able to get back in the game. Some full-court pressure and some man-to-man defense - the Huskies had played mostly zone to that point - jump-started a 10-0 run.
Larrier had four points in the spurt and Mamdou Diarra capped it with a put-back that made it 44-35 with 16:39 to play in the game.
The positive vibes from the Huskies were short-lived, however. Moments later SMU scored 11 straight points, on the strength of three 3-pointers, to extend its lead out to 21 with 11 minutes to play.
OLLIE: ‘I'LL BE BACK’
Kevin Ollie is confident he will return as UConn's head coach, despite his second straight losing season. Ollie, who led the Huskies to a NCAA championship his first season at UConn, but followed a 16-17 season in 2016-2017 with a 14-18 mark this year. Asked if he expected to be back next season, Ollie responded “Yes!” but didn't elaborate.
Later, he said: “I'll go through a long evaluation process for myself, my coaching staff and my team. We don't want to be 14-18. That's unacceptable and we have to get better in every category. I'm at the top to evaluate myself and how I can get these guys to player better, how I can get my coaching staff to execute better. We're all in this together.”