AAC Basketball: Houston cruises past UConn in conference opener

The Houston Cougars cruised past the free falling UConn Huskies in their AAC basketball opener.

HoustonCougars

62

UconnHuskies

46

With the Cincinnati Bearcats and the SMU Mustangs looking like the top two teams in the AAC, the Houston Cougars reminded everyone that they’re here to stay and could factor into the NCAA Tournament mix.

Houston dominated the Jalen Adams-less Connecticut Huskies from tip to finish in their AAC opener, winning 62 to 46 in the XL Center on Wednesday afternoon. Junior guard Rob Gray Jr. led the Cougars with 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting, while Damyean Dotson (10 points) and Danrad ‘Chicken’ Knowles (10 points) were the other two Houston players to score in double figures.

“I was really proud of our kids,” Houston head coach Kelvin Sampson said postgame. “I thought we were very organized, I thought we were very prepared. We were coming off a loss that we didn’t feel very good about (Harvard) so I knew that we were going to bounce back and play well.”

This wasn’t just a victory for the Cougars though. This was a thrashing.

Houston flexed their muscles defensively, as they held UConn to 12 first half points and three field goals. The Huskies only shot 14 percent in the first frame and 17 percent from beyond the arc.

Without Adams (concussion), the Huskies were forced to settle for outside jumpers or rely on their struggling bigs against Houston’s stellar 1-3-1 zone.

Meanwhile, on the offensive end, Houston was able to get anything they wanted. Gray was in the zone from the mid-range and was finishing easily around the rim, UConn wasn’t able to record a single block, and Knowles and Dotson provided a punch as the second and third scorers.

“It was just a bad defensive effort,” Huskies head coach Kevin Ollie said post game. “We got to go back to the drawing board. We got to keep people in front of us and try to do a better job on that end.

“But that’s the first game where I just really thought we just didn’t have the enthusiasm on the defensive end, the effort on the defensive end, paying attention to detail because there was just too many blow by’s.”

The Huskies dug themselves into too big of a hole to turn things around in the second half. Their offense was improved (48 percent shooting from the field and 47 percent from beyond the arc), but every time they threatened to make it a game again Gray responded with a clutch layup or transition bucket.

Rob Gray Jr.

Guard, Houston Cougars

A-

The junior guard, who came into Thursday’s game averaging 20.1 points per game, was sensational against the Huskies. Gray had 20 points on 9-of-15 shooting and only had three turnovers on the afternoon. His 10 first half points gave the Cougars a lead they would never relinquish, and helps him earn an A-.

Houston held UConn to 33 percent shooting overall, 38 percent from beyond the arc and forced 13 total turnovers. They didn’t shoot the ball well from three (25 percent) themselves, but they hit 52 percent of their shots from the field and they only turned the ball over eight times.

The Cougars are now 10-3 on the season and have a shot to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Their only quality win to this point is against Rhode Island, and they also have a very bad loss to LSU. However, if they can steal a win or two against Cincinnati and SMU, and win the games they’re supposed to, they could sneak into the Big Dance.

Gray is a special player because of his scoring ability and Dotson is one of the more versatile players in the AAC. Add in their ability to play both zone and man defensively, and Houston is the real deal.

Meanwhile, the UConn Huskies are in free fall. With Alterique Gilbert, Mamadou Diarra and Terry Larrier out for the season, and Adams still in the concussion evaluation period, according to Ollie, the Huskies just don’t have the depth and personnel to match up against good teams like Houston.

But even with those guys in the lineup, their shooting is shaky and their big men aren’t exactly the most dangerous offensive threats. They rely heavily on blocked shots, second chance points and Adams and Rodney Purvis to take over games.

Purvis and Christian Vital had to handle a heavy load on Thursday, and while Vital impressed (15 points), Purvis shot only 5-of-16 from the field and 1-of-7 from three.

UConn will win some games in conference play, but they’re clearly a bad basketball team right now. They sit at 5-7 overall and didn’t just lose their home conference opener, they were crushed by an impressive Houston team.

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